In San Francisco, excitement is building for Robert Dekker’s Post:Ballet, a small and relatively new company with all the markings of professionalism. I attended their fourth annual home season program, Four Plays, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on July 19, 2013.
From my entrance into the building (from which quite a long line of eager audience members snaked into the street), it was clear that one of Dekkers’ strengths, and certainly intentions, is collaboration. Black and white photographs of dancers, by Daniel O’Neill, hung suspended in a grid in the lobby, all shape, shadow, and skin. In front of this display, small statues encapsulated the art form in yet another medium. These detailed figures, sculpted by Jeffrey Zygmunt, had elongated limbs and were entombed in a series of postures. In the program, it was stated that the postures represented the movement vocabulary for the evening’s final presentation, field the present shifts.
This theme of collaboration continued from the first rise of the curtain to its final descent. I had come not only to see dance, but rather a curated conversation organized by a choreographer. In the first piece, Colouring, a simple formula constituted this conversation. Two dancers, a man and a woman, would walk towards each other and perform a fragment of a partnering phrase, adding a single movement each time. For a sustained moment, they would hold whatever shape they ended up in, and then they’d walk away from each other again. Between each repetition, a man dressed in black would take a small bucket and paintbrush and add on to a landscape he was simultaneously creating across three large white panes. His strokes were quick and fat, and the landscape was soon filled with unusual shapes resembling small, quirky homes and trees. Meanwhile, an electric cellist seated downstage left looped phrases, similarly contributing his own add-on component.
There were a few exciting moments in the choreography here, and I appreciated Dekkers’ ability to open up the creative process onstage, without taking away from performance quality. Even with some variation, the accumulative effect became predictable, and after a while I longed to see the phrase performed all the way through with no stops; however, my companion, a layperson, found this part captivating throughout.
A surprising ending and the collaborative nature of the work were what rescued this piece from banality. Throughout the opening sequence, a photographer had been standing just in front of the stage, and as the dancers were exiting, her photographs of them in various poses flashed across the backdrop, larger than life. It summarized the work in a flipbook-type way, and it also brought to mind the ephemeral nature unique to dance. Nowhere could the choreography be kept except in bodies or minds, yet the paintings and photographs that had been created remained as a document of what can never be fully contained.
The second work on the program, Sixes and Seven, was a crowd-pleasing solo alternately performed by Jessica Collado and Christian Squires. On the evening I attended, Squires performed it with focused clarity. Enjoyably, the piece seemed to be viewable from any angle, for Squires often faced upstage to perform themes he had done for us facing downstage. In that respect, the work had an Ohad Naharin-like feel, but however “Post” his ballet may be, Dekkers obviously prefers clean lines and pointed feet to the awkward angles frequently employed by Naharin.
The success of the second piece was followed by the laborious When in Doubt; I heard whispers behind me that someone had fallen asleep, and halfway through the man sitting next to me checked his phone. A larger cast of excellent technicians with a few stand-out performers now occupied the stage, which was brightly lit as the curtain rose. Jen Berletti’s all-black, minimal costumes were clean, and highlighted each dancer’s individuality. The lighting also triumphed. At one point, silhouettes against a white background transformed into warmly lit bodies against a black background: the negative space had inverted itself. In the strong opening section, gestural movements and counterpoint were set to a philosophical speech, given, it turns out, by one of the dancers.
As Jacob Wolkenhauer’s score continued, though, I found it distracting and vague. It had been composed of 12 dancers’ voices from this and the work’s original cast, and the voices were fragmented so that you could tell they were talking about difficult life questions, but no one really ever came out and said what. Near the beginning, all the “ums” and “ahs” were mixed together, which I was also inclined to dislike, despite this aspect being compositionally sound; however, I was struck by the notion that movement, indeed dance, becomes especially relevant–indeed, needed–at that point of hesitation when our words fail us.
Dekkers’ most recent work, field the present shifts, was another example of his dedication to collaboration. It had been co-conceived with architect Robert Gilson, and from this piece, too, came the installation in the lobby of photography and sculpture. The curtain rose to reveal six large, white architectural pieces, collections of huge strands caught near the top by intersecting curves, under which dancers moved collectively as one unit as well as separately, individually.
The music represented yet another collaborative aspect, with an original score by Matthew Pierce performed live by four violinists. Christine Darch’s costumes were inventive and nicely colorful, if a little bold. Orange unitards (for the women, tights for the men) with a sculptural ruffle clothed each dancer. The choreography didn’t disappoint, per se, but it definitely had a lot to live up to with so many elements interacting in each piece, and for me, it fell flat at times against the backdrop of everything else going on. Still, there were beautiful moments achieved in each piece, and Dekkers’ ability to capture so many different mediums and have them each unravel onstage according to his direction was beyond impressive.