SF Danceworks.
Jardi Tancat. Photo: Alexander Reneff-Olson

SF Danceworks.

Season Three

James Sofranko, Artistic Director
Danielle Rowe, Associate Artistic Director
Cowell Theater
June 8-10, 2018; Reviewed June 10

“¡Socorro!” in Spanish means “Help!” of the kind that begs for succor, comfort, a poultice for one’s wounds. If the San Francisco dance cohort, having plateaued about three years ago, sent up such a cry, then the goddess Terpsichore has answered it with SF Danceworks. The boutique-sized company is the creation of former San Francisco Ballet soloist and Juilliard graduate, James Sofranko, now also Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet. It receives an infusion of global energy from its Associate Director, Danielle Rowe, the Australian whose credentials have her as former Houston Ballet Principal Dancer, with three years at Nederlands Dans Theatre, then turning down a San Francisco Ballet contract in order to do something “a little different,” in her words. That “little” difference grows into the realm of enormous, considering how far SF Danceworks has come in the space of three years.

In its third season, this one at the Cowell, with swells from the San Francisco Bay slapping at the theater’s surrounding piers, SF Danceworks offered an unforgettable afternoon of four distinguished works: Penny Saunders’ “Snap,” Sofranko’s “Homing,” Rowe’s “The Old Child,” and Nacho Duato’s revered contemporary piece, “Jardi Tancat.”

In “Snap,” a man and woman approach each other from opposite wings only to join in a children’s game of “Patty Cake.” From there, to a haunting but halting whistled tune in a score by Olafur Arnolds and Nils Frahm, they go to angular movements that flatten onto the floor as the score opens a window on outdoor ambient talk and noise. Brett Conway and Danielle Rowe take us through an arc of steps that mature as their personas conjoin and separate. They build a pattern of sophistication that children tender who strive for credulity in that hostile workplace of a crazy mixed up world built by the adults who alternately rationalize and impeach it. Rowe and Conway prick, pat and bake their way through a playground of stage space, as their limbs, body thrusts, and tantalizing looks, mark the work with a “T” for “Transporting.”

Sofranko’s “Homing” to Schubert’s “Impromptus for Pianoforte,” performed onstage by Ronny Michael Greenberg, has a flock of five dancers peering collectively into a space where their gaze stops just short of the fourth wall. The three women, Dana Genshaft, Katerina Eng, Laura O’Malley, and two men, Garrett Anderson and Nicholas Korkos, make for a tight unit. Each time one or two of them arch out of their gaggle, they ping back as if adherence was the spring-loaded substance of their tribe. As the music offers license, they press further outward with each attempt, represented in solos or pas de deux. Don’t get the wrong idea. Just because the dancers nest, doesn’t meant that their flights consist of short hops. The men have extravagant en dehors arabesque leaps, or a woman slides a leg over the joined arms of two dancers. With the music as their perch, the dancers’ departures are confident thrill-and-spill adventures, their arrivals slicing, sweeping and cradling. Though they dance on flat, their incredible lightness causes you to do a double take: you look for glints of satin on the darkened stage, and listen for the muffled knock of pointe shoes. This is a characteristic of all the work, not just this piece. I for one, have been waiting for the company that makes work on flat look as serene, distinguished, yet floaty, as that done en pointe, not only to save on the long-term damage that pointe work exacts, but to challenge choreographers to reach for the sublime minus the iron lung of pointe shoes. In contrast to “Snap,” Sofranko’s plastic movement wends around the spine, shaping a continuum as dancers work on all three levels—floor, standing and in the air.

The Alton San Giovanni score to Danielle Rowe’s “The Old Child,” opens the piece with a guitar played onstage by David Knight, using a bow. It foreshadows something out of the ordinary. Choreographers usually inundate personal themes with buckets of poignancy. Rowe doesn’t indulge us with a poignant option on the spectator menu. As a matter of fact, her work asks spectators to transform themselves into participants, absorbing what she puts on the stage with material from our own lives. In a series of discreet scenes, she relates the conflict women encounter by living lives cast in the roles society imposes: Mother, daughter, wife or companion, whose overtones resound in ancillary roles: masochist, self-critic, schemer, manipulator, or accuser, that while unacknowledged and less celebrated, are too often the substance of the recognized ones. The male roles have their gradations, but tend to be more labile here. 

Rowe presses her women into corners from which they must fight their way out, slings them over the shoulders of men, casts them as mother/daughter antagonists or competitors, where role reversals and switchbacks summon the real drama of a life, and most importantly, open up a flank for the dancers to explore movement that goes unnamed in the common parlance of dance. When a dancer does a series of contractions, it is a woman from our own lives, convulsing in the body nature gave her. That body is a harbinger for her most acute trials. As she stands side by side with her daughter, there is no pretense of equanimity: it’s as if she is mirrored in her child; in that unflattering constellation she finds she is at war with herself. As she drapes over the shoulder of her man and it looks as if she is his burden, it turns out that no, she is the sole bearer of her sorrows, hating herself for accepting the “free ride” that shuttles her from one set of tragedies, large or small—to the next—as a chime rings in the touchpoints. Through weight shifts, stomps, floor rolls, and jerks, she endures every manner of manipulation, finding bursts of energy to give as good as she gets. All the while, Britt Juleen, dressed in black, back to audience, is the classical ancient Greek witness, the matriarchal oracle who trembles as she rises from the floor, who struggles to find her footing, but always remains in place throughout. 

Whatever “Gender Studies” experts may pretend to confect to secure themselves a sinecure in our alienated culture, the truth is that being a woman is not, when all is said and done, a “lifestyle choice,” as a friend recently remarked. It is, for most women under society’s current setup, a challenge to survive the pornographization of our charted trajectory from cradle to grave. This not-magical realism is what Rowe captures with uncanny explicitness in the movement she shapes out of the found grit of everyday life. 

Sofranko was prudent to wait until its third season for this small company, composed in part of pickup dancers, to shoulder all that is implied in the contemporary piece “Jardi Tancat,” by Nacho Duato. Sofrankio’s timing reads especially crucial this year, when the centuries-long oppression answered by more recent moral victories of the Catalan people have captured the hopes of a new generation, and we come to the inspired performance of this work with an enlivened and more informed understanding of what we’re seeing. The dancers’ characters speak the Catalan story with every fistful of soil they mime their way through, every mournful eye cast toward the earth, every inclination of the spine that attends the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of what the land produces because a people is tied to it. Theirs is a life circumscribed by the stakes marking their place on the bottom rung of Spanish society, and this is both the significance and signature of this arrestingly danced piece.

SF Danceworks is a different kind of garden. There are no limits on what it can produce so long as it is supported in the manner in which it deserves to become accustomed. Outstanding among its dancers is Anne Zivolich-Adams, who is the company’s eminence grise. After so many seasons performing in the modern idiom, she shows that she was truly meant to dance work that reflects the influences that seed the best in an art form. This is not to take away from the gifts her colleagues bring, all of them ambassadors from the four corners of the dance world, geographically, stylistically, and elementally, but Zivolich has earned her position as figurehead on the prow of this flagship company, which is bound for the glory of changing dance forever.

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.