Wendy Whelan, Brian Brooks and Brooklyn Rider
Some of a Thousand Words
San Francisco, Herbst Theatre
29 November 2017
The Bay Area is home to a number of stellar arts presenters; San Francisco Performances being one of the major, longtime players. For nearly four decades, SF Performances has celebrated creative excellence in the live arts, crafting an annual season that brings local, national and international talent to Northern California audiences. This year’s impressive line-up continues the tradition with more than a dozen different performance series and over fifty participating artists. Music concerts and programs make up the vast majority of the season, but dance has a presence as well. And on Wednesday evening, SF Performances launched their 2017/2018 dance series with the Bay Area premiere of 2016’s Some of a Thousand Words, a collaborative project choreographed and directed by Brian Brooks, joining legendary ballerina Wendy Whelan, Brooks and musical quartet Brooklyn Rider in an artistic dialogue.
Whelan and Brooks made their first visit to SF Performances in January 2015 with Restless Creature, a collection of four contemporary duets, composed by Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo, each of whom performed their choreography with Whelan. A number of similarities exist between Restless Creature and Some of a Thousand Words. Structurally, both are portioned into an easily digestible suite of shorter dances, Some of a Thousand Words having five movements of duets and solos. And there are choreographic throughlines too. Brooks’ First Fall (his duet seen in Restless Creature) makes up the final chapter of Some of a Thousand Words and many of its dynamics and motifs play heavily in the other parts of this newer piece. Fans may relish in these commonalities, but for my taste, Some of a Thousand Words was a little too reminiscent of Restless Creature.
Having said that, I very much like Brooks’ work, particularly his approach to rebound, points of contact in partnering and his nuanced use of accumulation. So even though I felt a sense of sameness, Some of a Thousand Words also had several blissful moments of choreographic surprise. And the live musical presence of string quartet Brooklyn Rider brought an impassioned vitality to every chapter of the dance.
From opposite sides of the stage, Whelan and Brooks approached each other for the first duet, meeting in the center. They faced front and walked slowly and meticulously downstage, articulating through each bone and muscle of the foot. While staying with this idea of walking, the tempo increased and the choreography accumulated, swinging limbs, directional patterning and luxurious pliés layering in. The pair covered space with serpentine abandon; the energy, a forward trajectory of development and change. With its pulsing current, Jacob Cooper’s Arches score, interpreted by cellist Michael Nicolas, was an equal contributor to a potent scene.
Brooklyn Rider’s Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin) and Nicholas Cords (viola) joined Nicolas onstage for a brief toccata-style interlude before Whelan returned in her lone solo. Much of the vocabulary felt similar to Some of a Thousand Words’ first movement, but something special happened right when the solo concluded. As the final note played, Whelan quickly turned her head towards Brooklyn Rider, who were upstage right. It was the only time in the entire work that this happened and it drew gasps of delight from the audience. And it also raised a question. With the choreography and the music in such deep conversation throughout the night, it was curious that, with this one exception, the performers and the musicians did not connect or acknowledge each other.
Circular physicality and forward movement continued during the dance’s middle sections. The addition of chairs to one duet brought height, levels and elevation into the mix. There was also a satisfying and unexpected meeting of traditions, Brooks marking his fluid contemporary choreography with modern syllabus influences – spirals, attitude pitches, Limón curves, even some old school Graham pleadings.
Then it was time for First Fall, Brooks’ 2012 work combining momentum, partnering and weight, set to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 3. Though clearly one of the common elements between Restless Creature and Some of a Thousand Words, the duet (which was by far, my favorite part of Restless Creature) still spoke volumes. Striking visuals permeated the stage. Amidst more serpentine arms, cantilevered spins dipped towards the ground and contemporary fish dives abounded. A series of huge full body falls kept the entire theater on the edge of their seats. Whelan would rise to a sky-high parallel sixth position relevé and remaining in one solid piece, fall backward, Brooks catching at the very last second. And of course, the most memorable image of all: Whelan leaning against Brooks’ back, stylistically walking across the front of the stage, lit by a shin buster stage right.
Some of a Thousand Words is well worth it – an enjoyable and entertaining evening of dance, choreography and music. Indeed, it was that for me, but at the same time, I craved more distinction from the project along with some visible connection between the musicians and performers.