Midway Theater
San Francisco

Choreographer: Danielle Rowe
Music: Yassou
Composer: Kristina Dutton
Producer: Kate Duhamel
Sept. 14-15, 2018

Kate Duhamel is unrepentant. “I’m responsible,” she admits. “I wanted to re-situate high level ballet in an Indie Pop or contemporary band multi-angle context, narrative-based, in a music venue.” She predicts that “Fury” will reach the potential audience that is “intimidated, can’t afford, not exposed, doesn’t think it’s for them” or has seen ballet only in a traditional space. For young people whose idea of a night out is clubbing, Fury could position ballet on the “awesome” spectrum.

We sit opposite each other at a large table in a small library in the Odd Fellows Building, where LINES Ballet has its studios. With us are three principal dancers from San Francisco Ballet: Frances Chung, Luke Ingham, and Jennifer Stahl, and dancers Babatunji and Adji Cissoko from LINES. LINES and San Francisco Ballet are the city’s two most celebrated ballet companies. Duhamel comes to the table as a seasoned patron, and an indie film and music producer. With us is a relative newcomer to the city, Australian-born Danielle Rowe. Rowe’s rapidly accelerating reputation as a choreographic storyteller with bona fide links to both dance companies is why Duhamel sought her out. She will spin the golden filament connecting all the moving parts, as first-rate music and tech talent join forces to push out a story ballet based on the film “Fury Road” in an edgy context and setting, the Midway Theater.

Our round-table takes place between the first and second of two five-hour rehearsals, and two weeks before opening night of Fury’s two-night run. It’s the dancers’ first opportunity to exchange ideas in an open conversation. Alexander Reneff-Olson, an SFB corps de ballet member and videographer, sets up two cameras to document this culture-building endeavor.

Duhamel recounts how it all began:

“The discussion started with the musicians.” She has worked with live shows and ballet dancers, collaborated with musicians and produced independent films. All of it has cued broad thinking about how creating music that is “good for movement” offers an opportunity for a new story ballet genre in a contemporary mode, relatable and recognizable to younger audiences.

“I met with James Jackson and Lilie Hoy and composer Kristina Dutton of the band Yassou. They agreed to go for it, so I asked Danielle Rowe to be the choreographer. I knew I’d love working with her.” Rowe has danced with The Australian and Houston Ballets, and Nederlands Dans Theater. A little over two years ago, she made a stunning Bay Area debut, dancing and choreographing for James Sofranko’s SFDanceworks. (She is currently that company’s Associate Artistic Director, Sofranko having this year become Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet.) Five days earlier, Rowe returned from a 10-week stint at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, where she choreographed a work for that company.

Duhamel and Rowe are in agreement that especially younger people, unfamiliar with the ballet art form, enjoy it more when it tells a story, where engagement can be more immediate than with abstract works. Yet, Rowe wanted to depart from the classical fable and try her hand at a Science Fiction theme. Says Duhamel, “James, Lilie and I went through a list of movies and when I read off ‘Mad Max,’ faces lit up.” They began brainstorming about dancers, and expanded their list to include top drawer designers and stage technicians. The result was what Duhamel rightly designates as an “historic first.”

The dancers weigh in on how it compares with work they have done before.
Luke Ingham, eager to dance his wife’s choreography, says that “in ballet we talk a lot about how to get the product out in a new way. I will enjoy seeing us present dance in a new kind of space and experiencing how people coming from different dance backgrounds move and work together.”

Frances Chung has looked forward to working with Rowe. “During our first rehearsal,” says Chung, “I saw that I’m in a room with dancers with not a lot of time to put it together. I’ve done other outside projects, always exciting, but not in the same way. I’m used to a formula. Our schedules at San Francisco Ballet are crazy, and so I welcome a different way of working, where those of us from different companies have a chance to dance together.”

Babatunji sees it as a new outlet. “I am happy to be working with Kate: she’s brought all these new creative people together: band, choreography, newness. Until now, this kind of project was discussed only behind closed doors, but never publicly.”

“I see it as a different context in which to reach an audience.” says Jennifer Stahl, “This project proves that this is possible. I hope it will encourage companies to come together in this way in the future. It’s a celebration of the dance community.” She hopes Fury will open up a channel to thinking about “all the possibilities.”

Rowe observes that “art overall is undergoing a lot of change. Fury is an exciting cross pollination. We need inspiration from other sources, to see what others are doing. Especially with ballet, we need access to energy from other places. This may explain why companies are becoming more open to choreographers they haven’t considered before, and dancers they haven’t worked with.” She notices that when she works with dancers of this caliber, she can’t help but be generous. “They finish your sentences for you, are immediately collaborative. There is nothing false going on.”

How do the dancers envision the roll-out?
Ingham says, “Fury offers an open environment, free of company hierarchy. You can use a voice you do not necessarily have in a more traditional setting.”

Adji Cissoko speaks about what is different about working with Rowe compared to other choreographers: “We [she and Babatunji] are both used to working very much in our own world.” She finds it refreshing to work with someone new, “whose process is different. We’re involved because we’re creating a story with her, which is different than simply making [abstract] movement mean something to us, as we are accustomed to. Baba and I don’t usually partner together: here we will have real characters to dance. This will be ours and Dani’s.” She adds, “When you grow as a person, you grow as a dancer.”

“Fury is a great icebreaker,” says Babatunji, “a way to encourage companies to collaborate, and for dancers of the same high caliber, who feel secure, to have freedom to step out of the old tapestry into something new.” He sees it as an opportunity for a choreographer to create outside of a boilerplate setup. “Companies should be huge arts hubs, where everyone is tossed a whole new way of thinking, a palette of paints to add new color.” He compares it to going on tour or traveling to another country. “It helps you grow; you become a different person.” He looks forward to returning to LINES, reinvigorated, with a fresh approach.

Duhamel says she feels “like an engine more than a creator. My job is to keep things humming, so everyone can do what they do, opening opportunity, and on the visual side, bringing in creative designers.” It’s satisfying, she says, “to step back and see them do their thing, instead of my vision being foremost.” She speaks of the exhilaration of “jumping off a cliff” to produce a show where “I step forward more in how much I’m taking on, with so many people involved, communicating with new audiences.”

After the round table, I will watch Rowe run a rehearsal, aided by ballet mistress Laura O’Malley. In the studio, she comes with her own stories, intentionally creating a reciprocal atmosphere for herself and the dancers. In life outside the studio, other stories tend to import sensory overload. I ask her whether it’s easier to be fearless in the studio than in everyday life.

“I don’t know if I find it easier to be fearless in studio. I do find that I can say more with movement than words. A story is more substantial with movement. Within movement I find words that don’t exist in spoken language. It’s why I’m so invested in dance: I can convey what I want to say. I arrive well informed, and think about how to communicate my vision of the story. There are many ways to work purely with movement. I like to spend more time on detail. Taking time to work out what connects makes it worthwhile, like a real conversation that gets past pleasantries to deeper, more meaningful and juicier material.”

Rowe first met Yassou musicians James Jackson and Lilie Hoy through SFDanceworks. She says they are “beautiful, generous collaborators” who understand dancers.” In Greek, “yassou” means both hello and goodbye, and signals great affection. Yassou’s music is mood-driven. Fury’s middle section is Dutton’s “Eye of the Storm.” All strings, it ushers in a character transformation that occurs during two large battles, where drum loops punctuate confrontations between Ingham’s character and the newly-forged cadres who, by taking him on, find their spine. Some will die; some, you hope, will live another day.

What does Rowe find compelling about the film “Fury Road”? She says, “The energy, intensity and grit. When I first watched the film, it put me on the edge of my seat. There is so much choreography . . . and very little dialogue. Much is said with a look or hand gesture and there are epic battle scenes. It’s a substantial, captivating film that draws viewers into a crazy, different, yet relatable, world. I am compelled by any art that is able to transport those who witness it. Fury Road did that for me.”

For those who have not seen Fury Road, Mad Max is its solitary hero, interpreted here by Babatunji, inserted into a future dystopian vision. Ingham dances his antagonist, the tyrant scavenger, Rictus Erectus. To monopolize scarce fuel, water, and technology remnants in order to capitalize on a nuclear apocalypse, Erectus deploys a gang of muscled thugs. An auxiliary narrative has the warlord’s concubines (Chung, Dores André and Stahl) devising an escape led by Imperator Furiosa, a rogue military officer danced by Cissoko. Babtunji’s character identifies with the concubines’ struggle to be free. As they battle to reach their destination, they see destruction everywhere. Their only hope lies in returning to where they started from, defeating Ingham, and freeing up the hoarded resources. Ten musicians on the main stage mark the point of origin. A bridge suggestive of Fury Road connects the proscenium stage with a smaller round one. Screens on opposite walls show roadscapes from departure to arrival points. Hardscrabble terrain images embrace the audience. Stage design assures that the musicians’ presence is as resonant as the dancers’ and screens become opposite poles for attracting and immersing the audience in the action.

Hoy, with a uniquely lilting voice, and who can also dance, sings the opening ballad. In the darkened house, we see her under a spot in a surround of a spiked white gauze channel. The gauze rains down from above like a gentle piece of industrial scrim ductwork. An imposing Ingham cuts an evil swathe, tilting at all eight points of the circular stage. After serpentining along its periphery and crawling through imagined rubble, Babatunji rises to defy Ingham’s contact improvocations.

The statuesque Cissoko comes sheathed in black as singly as Hoy floated in white. She works slow sinewy angles. She, André, Stahl and Babatunji, form a strategic quartet, into which Hoy is invited. André grapevines a perilous path along the darkened stage edge. Staking out a quadrant, Stahl dances with a fatalistic rapture recalling her performance as the sacrificed one in Yuri Possokhov’s “Rite of Spring.” Here she dies once more, slung over the arms of her assailant, Ingham. Drumbeats certify each assay by novice fighters who stand their ground with the intensity of converts.

Babatunji and André infuse their styles—his adaptive, hers insistent—into a duet. Rowe counter-intuitively pairs Chung, a versatile classical dancer, with the long-limbed Cissoko. Cissoko’s infinite line and skyscraper extensions make the case that a classical foundation lends brilliance to contemporary presentiments.

In the heat of battle, Lines’ Michael Montgomery travels the length of the bridge only to fall head over heels for Hoy. His tender mercies call up the Fury Road character Nux, and a hoped-for future where his responsiveness will be neither scanted nor squandered. That proposition is tested in battle under the command of Ingham and Chung, where staging in a small space has never been more impressive. Hoy’s breathwork returns equilibrium with haunting finale incantations.

The seated and the larger SRO audience totals 800 each night. It is strikingly young in composition. Dancers improvise bows in all directions for a jubilant standing ovation, where Rowe can’t be fully seen until the second call. Her luminosity feels nearly buried in the celebratory fray: you want the dancers and musicians to carry her down Fury Road on their shoulders. With Duhamel’s help and the artists’ dedicated interpretations, she has demonstrated that even with a scant 50 hours of rehearsal time, if you build it, they will awesomely come.

Toba Singer

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.