Garrett + Moulton 15th Anniversary
Haiou Wang and Michele Wong. Photo: RJ Muna

Garrett + Moulton 15th Anniversary

European-style dance theater in San Francisco's MIssion District

Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton, Co-Artistic Directors
ODC Theater
San Francisco
Dec. 14-16, 2017
Reviewed Dec. 14

The CITGO sign that once stood as an iconic place-name in Boston’s Kenmore Square has a soulmate: the imposing ODC sign that lights the intersection at Shotwell and 17th Streets in the otherwise humble neighborhood in San Francisco’s rapidly-gentrifying Mission District. With ODC’s expansion from a small but ambitious performing arts presence to a duchy sheltering two theaters, a warren of class and rehearsal studios, and a destination café, it is pleasing to find there the glories of European-style dance theater in a contemporary state-side caste.

Janice Garrett has staged works for others the world over, and invented works of her own. What forges her outstanding partnership with Charles Moulton is a shared eye for theater, ear for music, and canny ability to spot potential in the coltish student whom they invite to join their company, recognizing that he or she is the one they can sculpt without the risk of extinguishing a defining internal spark. Six such dancers perform the first two world premiere pieces on the program: “Zingo,” to Rumanian music by Taraf de Haïdouks and Eric Satie; and “The Mozart,” to W. A. Mozart’s Piano Sonatas and Variations. Then those six, plus twelve guest dancers, lend their bodies to the World Premiere of “Crystal Anniversary Ball Passing,” gamed to a score by Matthew Pierce.

“Zingo” is a daring athletic work set to high-strung animated Rumanian rhythms. Black, white, and red costumes by Julienne Weston, in prints, checks, and plaids, one of which features a borealis bustier, and a stage brightly lit by David Robertson, put the “zing” in Zingo. Anchored by the versatile Michele Wong and mentored through its paces and spaces by G + M veteran Nol Simonse, Zingo is also a chunk of mobile of architecture built on ascents and descents involving low stools. The dancers use them to construct their way through a “Beat the Clock” specie of tempo in a musically exotic language.

The dancers are not always rushing around. There are pauses and contemplative moments as they mount the stools in a nesting configuration that resolves into them blowing into children’s party-favor tubes that could be festive phallic symbols otherwise given to erectile dysfunction. Another quiet moment is the virginal offering of a balloon from a female dancer to a male, aided by a second male dancer, where the passage it represents is both lampooned and harpooned. In another sequence, dancers self-deploy in a clutch on three levels. They scatter rose petals to coax the eye to follow the ensemble from stage left to right. The petals mark site specific venues for short solos, duets and trios by the theatrical Gretchen LaWall, the legato Carolina Czechowska, the spitfire Haiou Wang, and the limpid Michael Galloway, who join Wong and Simonse.

Works of Mozart inspire a leotard ballet offering in a studio-to-stage al fresco that begins with the ensemble assembled in a grapevine-like wreath of an arm-over-arm group embrace. They rise to relevé, swiveling right then left to break free like a cap unscrewing from a wide-mouthed jar. The piece retains its rondure throughout, helped by discreet piano notes to avoid any cliché temptations. Instead It shows us the bones of a technique pitched along a contemporary bias. Dancers following the bass line assiduously, while not always managing to cover the treble range with the same correspondences.

Simonse initiates a leitmotif in a solo, hunched over, as he moves downstage with marshaled intention, unable to unlock foreshortened limbs. He will reappear at various intervals, gaining facility by successive approximation. It’s a riposte to the “can’ts” which, wraith-like, inhabit the ballet studio in every dancer’s pre-performance nightmares. Arms describe the territory just beyond, always finding, then giving. This is the essence of balletic movement, despite trends that would have us invested in the “tricks”—multiple turns and excesses in elevation. Nonetheless, Wang is not shy when it comes to speedy dispatch and airborne jumps, LaWall breaks away from her poses to share stretchy, legato Theda Bara talents. Galloway is a spellbound presence, and Czechowska obligingly invites us into her spirit world, while Wong’s eye is everywhere vigilant in this music box of treats.

In “Ball Pass,” apart from face recognition, the audience can’t distinguish guest from company dancers. All are diligently counting to themselves and for the sake of the ensemble, as they move hundreds of balls, tucked away where they can’t be seen, from hand to hand, over and under dancers seated or standing on three-tiered bleachers. It’s a factorial fest, where a ball falls to the floor as permutations discard n-minus-1s seemingly at random. Can math and dancers, seated or standing, keep us riveted throughout, as no other work can? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Garret + Moulton = 15 years of infinitely inventive dance theater.

Let “i” = an imaginary number of inspired innovations to 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.