Beyond Sugarplum Fairies 

Lula Washington, ODC/S.F., Mark Morris and more

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000

With nearly a dozen regional productions scheduled, you could fill up the rest of December going to see that favorite holiday warhorse The Nutcracker, but my recommendation is to save some energy for Lula Washington Dance Theater’s fourth annual Gospel Kwanzaa Celebration on December 30. It may be sacrilegious in some quarters to pooh-pooh sugarplum fairies and dancing mice, but until Donald Byrd‘s Harlem Nutcracker or Mark Morris’ lurid 1960s retelling of the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale, The Hard Nut, comes to town, Washington‘s high-energy extravaganza provides a very welcome alternative to the surreal story of little Clara and her wooden boy-toy.

Organized around the seven principles of Kwanzaa (personal, family and community values), the production unites the professional company and its youth ensemble with traditional African drummers, gospel singers and, this year, actress Virginia Capers reading a Langston Hughes poem, and the Marcus Miller Freedom Jazz Movement. “It’s about the community coming together, to share our cultural heritage and learn about one another,” says Tamica Washington (Lula‘s daughter and a phenomenal dancer in her own right), who is producing the show.

The event is a fund-raiser for the company and its school, both of which the Washingtons (husband Erwin manages administrative matters) are struggling to keep afloat. Their well-documented lawsuit against the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency remains unresolved, as legal fees continue to mount. It’s hard to believe that this is the case, given that the company, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, is among the city‘s top modern-dance troupes. If ever there were a candidate to inherit the mantle of respect that Bella Lewitzky once commanded, it would be Lula -- if for no other reason than her ability to exemplify the Kwanzaa principle of kujichagulia, self-determination.

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ODCSan Francisco, which comes to the J. Paul Getty Museum next weekend, was among the first dance companies to purchase a building, which it wisely did back in 1980, successfully avoiding the dot-commer land grab that is now jacking up studio-rental prices 300 percent to 400 percent in the Bay Area. With longevity and stability come the freedom to evolve, which ODCS.F. continues to do since the gang first arrived in San Francisco in a yellow school bus. That was in 1971, when its three co-founding directorchoreographers, Brenda Way, K.T. Nelson and Kimi Okada, favored non-aestheticized pedestrianism, environmental interaction and spontaneity (are you on the bus?). These days, ODC is a highly trained 10-member ensemble. Somewhere along the way, when virtuosity came back into vogue, the company developed a bold athleticism that is still grounded in the “human vision” of the company’s founding ethos.

It was this physicality that attracted Getty performing-arts manager Laurel Kishi, who commissioned Way to create a piece based on the exhibition Raphael and His Circle: Drawings From Windsor Castle. The result, Garden Tour: Impressions of Raphael, is a series of explorations of Raphael‘s physicality, based on his studies of nude men and such drawings as The Expulsion From Paradise, The Massacre of the Innocents and Leda and the Swan. Way said, in a recent telephone interview from her home in the Bay Area, that she was inspired by the motion of the bodies in these compositions, from which she extrapolated implications of their muscularity. Also on the bill is a preview of a new work Way created for ODCS.F.’s 30th anniversary, 24 Exposures, set to premiere in San Francisco next spring, which traces the evolutionary trajectory of the company‘s, and its founders’, aesthetic evolution.

Irrepressible enfant terrible Mark Morris has been touted as one of the foremost choreographers of our time. So why hasn‘t anybody brought one of his operas to Southern California? Two years ago, Morris’ unbridled take on Rameau‘s farce Platee made it to San Francisco, and this September, Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall hosted the American premiere of his production of the Virgil Thomson--Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Compared to these, the evening of repertory presented by the Mark Morris Dance Group at Royce Hall in early November had all the punch of a chamber-music concert, which it resembled in scale and sensibility.

Maybe it was the air of nostalgia that seemed to hang over the concert from the opening piece, Canonic 34 Studies, created in the choreographer‘s salad days, to its jolly finale, Dancing Honeymoon; the latter was one of those crowd pleasers set to a medley of American popular songs from the ’30s and ‘40s (early Jerome Kern, Gershwin brothers and Cole Porter, sung by a trilling soprano). I think all the shuck and jive was supposed to be satirical, but I’d have to agree with a friend who commented afterward that she “didn‘t see the tongue or the cheek” -- odd for Morris, whose dances usually have the delicious bite of a Wildean epigram.

Morris excels at being fastidiously baroque. Ranging from impishly mischievous to floridly effulgent, his dances are replete with flourishes, fillips and filigrees; attitude, like style, is everything. Much is made of Morris’ rigorous adherence to the structural nuances of the music that inspires his work. Often classical (this program favored solo piano works, played wonderfully by Ethan Iverson), it provides the audience with a backbone of familiarity, of knowing that there will always be the choreographic equivalent of a resounding major chord at the end of a phrase. Sometimes, as in the girl-girl duet Silhouettes (which has previously been danced by two men; Morris is gender-democratic), such assurance comes dangerously close to music visualization. But what struck me during the suite of duets, The Argument, was his uncanny ability to reinterpret pitch and loudness into dimensionality, creating a spaciousness within the music that echoed the emotional distance between the couples. What was also striking about Morris‘ work was the class and social machinations at play. These were not the mores and manners of my people: The dancers -- elegant, refined, performing with de rigueur nonchalance -- had sprung straight from a New Yorker cartoon. Which helps to explain why Morris has been clutched to the bosom of Manhattan’s upper crust, who‘ve ponied up to support a $6 million permanent home for his company (albeit in Brooklyn).

Eko Supriyanto’s show at Highways last summer was in many ways an experience superior to his mid-November concert in UCLA‘s Kaufman Hall -- not least because the insulated space cast everything into the mold of student work. Appropriate, perhaps, given that it was Supriyanto’s last degree hurdle for the Department of World Arts and Cultures MFA program. That program encourages students to mine their cultural heritage while studying with two of the best and most daring choreographers in Los Angeles, superpostmoderns Victoria Marks and David Rousseve. While such fusion work presents a host of questions often volleyed back and forth among critics (does employing the trappings of culture constitute artistic advancement, or is it simply fetishizing ethnicity?), the program has recently produced a spate of young choreographers (including Sen Hea Ha and Parijat Desai) who are infusing the local dance scene with intriguing possibilities.

This concert, Mata Hati (Mind‘s Eye), hewed close to Supriyanto’s roots in classical Javanese court dance, with an onstage Balinese gamelan that often competed with the dancers while providing a dramatic arc for the dances. These were cut from the same compositional cloth, with long threads of movement unspooling along geometric patterns only to retract again to a central still point. In the solo From the Time Piece, an old man‘s reflections on his lost youth provided the figurative frame from which sequences unfurled; in A Year Book, two women played out an ambiguous relationship around and atop the central point of return, two chairs from which they vaulted themselves or pushed each other. Again and again, brief, sudden explosions of activity erupted, then subsided into meditative calm, marked by a subtle glance, a gentle unfolding of a palm. While the work as a whole left much to be desired, Supriyanto is an arresting performer and is worth watching as he continues to develop a unique voice.

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