Thousands (and thousands and thousands) of people have moved to San Francisco during the recent tech boom. Most of them are entrepreneurs, techies or disrupters of some sort. Because of the resulting radical cost of living, few newcomers are artists.
So it was with curiosity and enthusiasm that the city welcomed Garance Marneur to the fold. The French-born, London-based theater and film designer made her debut as the director of San Francisco’s LEVYdance on Wednesday, October 26, with the world premiere of Alone Together at the black-box Z Space.
Marneur takes the helm from Benjamin Levy, who founded the company in 2002 and built an oeuvre of interdisciplinary contemporary works. Levy recently converted the company from an auteur format to a curator-led format, and Marneur is the first person to step into the creative lead. (Levy continues as founding director while teaching and choreographing internationally.)
Well established on the other side of the Atlantic, Marneur has variously designed sets, costumes and projections for Northern Stage’s I Promise You Sex and Violence at Edinburgh Fringe and The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Measure for Measure, and exhibited in the V&A’s Transformation and Revelation: Gormley to Gaga. Levy and Marneur collaborated previously on the 2011 dance work Khaos, produced by Scottish Dance Theatre, and Comfort Zone, a site-specific piece set at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum.
As her opening salvo on these shores, Alone Together introduced Marneur as an artist of exceptional skill and polish, to a level that’s unexpected in the generally scrappy world of independent dance here. She and set-design collaborator John Allbee arranged seats for 60 viewers on the Marley floor, in offset arcs that outlined an open quatrefoil of space for the dancers. Suspended screens circumscribed the air and showed projections of smoke whorls, moonscapes and bubbling water. J.C. Moore’s lighting grids beamed pink, green, gold and white from the sides and overhead, punctuated by darkness.
Into this arena stepped company dancers Michaela Burns, Chin-chin Hsu and Yu Kondo Reigen, and guest artist Kristen Bell, prepared for combat, and they were fearsome. Working in collaboration to create the 45-minute work, the dancers, Marneur, Levy and choreographer Holly Johnston dug deep into their physical and emotional selves to create movement of a deeply personal sort.
In Alone Together they set a wholly unique standard for movement that does not cotton mere vocabulary; you could tease out an arabesque here, a Horton lateral there, pliés and contractions, but most of what they danced came from their bodies and only their bodies.
Spasmodic walking, daredevil balances, intermittent synchrony, partners leaning out to the fullest length that their arms could support each other. Burns grappling with Bell on the floor, Reigen inverting into a B-girl shoulder stand. Hsu whirling on one foot, holding the other in front of her, the huh-huh-huh of her exhalations replacing the digital sound score for a minute.
Lost in their grappling, they veered so close that you could see the rippled weave of Mary Domenico’s white costumes and glimpses of henna tattoos on bare skin. The dancers’ raw, guttural power mostly overrode the choreographed gazes into each other’s eyes, a hackneyed device that hobbles abstraction with unfulfilled suggestions of narrative.
Fred Defaye’s sound score and Ian Momsen’s video projections were performances in themselves, orchestrated live by a five-person crew seated far upstage with laptops. Frankly, though, without music, light show and whizbangs, this dance would have as much impact.
The promotional poster for Alone Together promises an “immersive performance on shifting identity and memory,” and in her program notes, Marneur says that when she sees a performance, “I demand to be shaken, to intimately feel a small earthquake.” While she achieved intriguing things in this production, it’s not certain that she achieved those things.
The movement was obviously meaningful to the performers – they moved like no one was watching – and talented young dancer Chiara Kovac performed a coda that suggested childhood memories were in play. But the past didn’t register as a motif, perhaps because the choreography was so ahead of its own time.
Immersion, too, was a bit of a misnomer; sitting close to a work is not the same thing as moving through it. Proximity did, however, reveal rippling muscles, breath and breasts, and entropy that might have swept us all away, had the piece gone on much longer. We’ll see how Marneur harnesses it next time.