Sharp & Fine Company

Just Ahead is Darkness
Sharp and Fine Company
Z Space Theater
February 7 – 9, 2020

Memory and Celebration

Sharp & Fine is a San Francisco based contemporary dance company founded in 2011 by sisters Megan and Shannon Kurashige. Their aim is “to create narrative performance work that brings together physical exuberant choreography, emotionally nuanced text, live music and multi-disciplinary collaboration.“ (quote from program notes)

For the most part they succeed with an extremely talented group of dancers and musicians. The thematic material of “just Ahead is Darkness” concerns family life, death, and memory. It draws on the “Japanese and Japanese-American tradition of remembering the dead to tell a poignant and magical take about family, love, loss and the eternal return of ghosts.”

There are two stories. The first, featuring dancers Sonja Dale (child), Sarah Woods-LaDue (mother), Chistian Burns (father), Megan and Shannon Kuashige (aunties) involves the father and daughter sharing infatuation with the starry night. After the father’s death, he returns as a ghost and haunts the family’s memory. Burns is a particularly interesting dancer, able to perform extremely articulate dramatic movement with his arms and legs as extensions of his torso. Dale and Woods-LaDue both have great range of movement skills and dramatic ability.

All dancers execute long phrases of movement combining ballet, modern dance and contact improvisation skills. These are accompanied by dramatic dialogues and monologues which can be beautiful and sentimental. Alas, there are too many movement phrases, mostly with the same dynamic and also spoken interludes which(at this event suffered from technical difficulties in the sound system.

The second story, introduced by a long monologue by Tristan Ching Hartman as “Death” tells the story of a boy who, holding a rock in water for a long time, nevertheless, drowned. Hartman’s descent from an upstage right staircase was an arresting, breathtaking event, as was Woods-LaDue’s similar action carrying the rock. Again, family story telling and long interactive movement phrases amplified the memories and sentiment.

At the start of the program and at an interval, the company danced with members of audience as if to bring memories with them. These events were prelude to the demonstration of “Fukushima Ondo” by Kay Fukumoto, Brian Nagami and Jen Sumida of Maui Taiko during which most of the audience danced. This last event celebrated the Obon festival that Megan and Shannon experience in Hawaii. Shannon writes; “Bon dances are part family reunion, part ritual…but mostly about bringing people tougher.” That celebration and the festival of food that graced the end of the evening in the lobby, surely accomplished her aim.

Musicians Steve Adams (woodwinds), Jordan Glenn (percussion), John Schoot (guitar) and Cory Wright (woodwinds) deserve special recognition for their excellent accompaniment.

Technical credits include Allen Willner (lights), Emily Kurashige (costumes) and Mika Hamamura, Jason Kurashige and Jon Hamamura (scentic design and production). Bravo!

Joanna G. Harris

Sarah Woods-LaDue (Mother), with rock, and Christian Burns (Father) in Just Ahead is Darkness. Photo by Stephen Texeira.


SF Ballet – Cinderella

SF Ballet “Cinderella
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
SF Opera House

Brilliant Ballerina

Frances Chung joined the SF Ballet in 2001, became soloist in 2005 and was made principal dancer in 2019. Now, in the opening work of the 2020 season, Chung, as “Cinderella” in Christopher Wheeldon’s production, has achieved greatness.

Other dancers exude technical brilliance; some have dramatic ability and project ideas and emotions suitable to their role. Chung has accomplished a balance of skill (without the flashy ‘show-off’ display), dramatic depth and character interpretation that fascinates and intrigues the audience. It was truly drawn into her performances. Brava!

There are many compliments to be paid for this revival. “Cinderella” was produced at SF Ballet on May 3, 2013. (Chung portrayed the ‘near-sighted’ sister in that production!) It was originally premiered in Amsterdam by the Dutch National Ballet (that claim co-production still) on December 13, 2012.

The ‘stage-magic’ accomplished by Natasha Katz (Lighting), Julian Crouch( Scenic and Costume Design), and especially Basil Twist (Tree and Carriage Sequence Direction/Design) bring this “Cinderella” to the fairy tale status longed for by adults and children.

It all just doesn’t seem possible but there it is: the tree grows up and out; the carriage wheels appear and then take Cinderella to the ball; the chairs float up and frame the stage. To this stage-magic, add the roles of the four “Fates” who help Cinderella accomplish her personal magic. Max Cauthorne, Daniel Deivison-Olivera, Steven Morse and Alexander Renneff-Olson are sometimes seen and often un-seen, but accomplish the moments when transformation must happen. A particularly delightful moment occurs when the “Fates” slide Cinderella across the stage to grasp the slipper which will prove her as the bride-to-be.

Joseph Walsh as Prince Guilloume is an accomplished partner for Chung. Their sizes are compatible; therefore the lifts and balances are secure. Esteban Hernandez provides the comic and skilled, ‘friend’ of the Prince, who, by switching roles achieves his own romance. (The early childhood scene in the ballet, provides the backstory.)

Sarah Van Patten achieves the master acting award as the Stepmother. She is skilled and very funny, as are the step-sisters, Elizabeth Powell and Ellen Rose Hummel.

Wheeldon and librettist Craig Lucas chose to let the tree (which grows from Cinderella’s mother’s grave) substitute for the usual “fairy-godmother” character. Lucas says the tree is “a living thing that can embrace the action,” and Wheeldon chooses the Fates “who offer guidance and protection.” (SF Ballet program notes, pg.19)

The production is complete with almost all members of the SF Ballet company and school dancing as Spirits (Spring, Summer, Winter, Autumn), as elegant couriers at the ball and as tree gnomes, puppeteers, servants. “Cinderella” is a sumptuous dance production.

Three temping princesses (a faint, but funny echo of “Swan Lake”?) Madison Keesler, Russian, Isabella DeVivjo, Spanish and WanTing Zhao, Balinese, add to ethnic/romantic interest at the ball. But again and again it is Chung, as Cinderella, whose entrances, appearances and disappearances claim the Prince’s heart, as they do ours.

Martin West accomplishes wonders as he conducts the Prokofiev score with the SF Ballet orchestra.

(Chung will appear again as Cinderella on February 1, 2020 at 8 PM. Don’t miss this!)

Joanna G. Harris

Frances Chung as “Cinderella” aided by the Four Fates

Alexander Reneff-Olson Daniel Deivison-Oliveira Frances Chung

Max Cauthorn Steven Morse

Photo: Chris Tomasson


Cunningham – A Film

Cunningham – A Film (in both 2D and 3D)
Directed by All Kovgan
Studio: Magnolia Picture
Runtime: 93 minute

Innovative Dance

The year 2019 marked the centennial of Merce Cunningham’s birth. In three cities, on what might have been his 100th birthday, April 16, in New York, London and Los Angeles, groups of dancers performed 100 solos. These were reconstructed from his many works. Around the world many companies have been taught his repertory so new audiences can experience Cunningham’s innovative dance. Yet, still, to many, his work is strange and irregular.

The decades after World War I brought new explorations in the art world. Dada, surrealism, abstract expressionism and other inventive directions changed the visual arts.Twelve-tone systems and new harmonies were heard in music. The modern dance developed, primarily in Germany and America with powerful movement vocabularies and bare feet! … not seen in traditional ballet. These influences and that of the writer James Joyce and the physicist Einstein were important to Merce, as was the electronic experimentation of his partner, the composer John Cage. American visual artists, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Jasper Johns all contributed to Cunningham’s innovations. When Cunningham choreographed without regard to standard musical rhythms or melodies and replaced narrative with abstract movement, phrasing and groupings, dance audiences were shocked. Now, after fifty years of choreographic output, Cunningham’s work is considered were hallmark of late 20th century dance.

Kovgan’s film makes a serious and splendid effort to capture the history and complexity of the work. By means of archival episodes and choreographic reconstruction by the dancers who were in the company until 2109, she has accomplished much of the story. For example two quotes from a satiric dance are shown. One is of Raushan Mitchell and Mellissa Toogood(?) performing a “pas de deux,” seemingly a satire on that classic ballet event. Mitchell wears a chair on his back (a choice Merce made). Toogood wears a flimsy long dress and sits politely on the chair. Eventually, Mitchell open the door; the dancers and the door slides off the stage.

Kovgan then gives us the archival footage of Cunningham and Carolyn Brown performing the dance in its original. Cunningham chose the chair: Rauschenberg the door! Such quotes not only provide us with a glimpse of Merce’s humor, but gives us clear historical perspective.

Other events are not so successful. We see clips of the class training provided, the care in choreographic structure and shots of Merce’s wonderful feet. Yet, in later passages, dancers are filmed from the torso up; no feet are displayed. Dancers are not dancers without feet! The film also provides great views of landscapes both European and American, that upstage focus on dance movement. Great plazas, fountains, ponds, aerial views of New York bridges and rivers are wonderful to see, but, to this viewer, such shots diminish the dance and the dance story.

Kovgan deserves praise for the inclusion of interview and moments of movement with the older, first company dancers: Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Valda Setterfield and Gus Solomons, Jr. We see but don’t meet the younger dancers who perform, yet they take many roles in many works. “Cunningham” the film is an outstanding achievement in the “adventure” of creating 20th century dance that Merce accomplished. There is almost too much to be seen, whether in 3D or 2D, for this viewer, the emphasis need to be on the dance and the dancers. Kovgan has overloaded us with interviews, cinematic scenery, quotes valuable and miscellaneous. Nevertheless we are grateful for this production which celebrates Merce Cunningham, a master artist of the 20th century.

Besides the early company members mentioned, the dancers are: Ashley Chen, Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Julie Cunningham, Jennifer Goggans, Lindsy Jones, Cari Kresge, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Marcie Mannerlyn, Silas Reiner, Glen Rumse, Jamie Scott, Melissa Toogood.

Joanna G. Harris

Ashley Chen and Melissa Toogood perform “Summers pace”

Set and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg.