San Diego Arts 2017: Dance and Performance

Assembling our year-end feature for is rewarding. Our archives are filled with pages about amazing performances, dancers, choreographers, musicians, costumers, designers, and directors. Dozens of local and touring troupes filled stages and outdoor spaces. We are grateful for colleague Janice Steinberg, who wrote astute dance reviews this year. Together we covered a range of genres and noted new artists, collaborations, and trends.

I did not see every dance and theater show from 2017, nor did I publish a preview or review for every production I saw. My observations here are limited to what I saw. Rather than rank wildly different dance and theater productions, I offer my favorites in no particular order, followed by a few comments and predictions.

Exquisite Foot Stomping:

Black Grace at the Spreckels. Neil Ieremia is Samoan, and his company of men and women are from New Zealand. His choreography fuses contemporary, hip-hop, and haka, an ancient Maori war dance known for its intense foot stomping and full-voiced shouting.

The program of five dances, presented by La Jolla Music Society, opened with Minoi, a vigorous work based on a Samoan nursery rhyme. Yet this was a powerful, masculine dance. A line of bare-chested men mesmerized with ah-lu-ee-loy vocalizations. Deep and overlapping, they chanted like monks.

 Extraordinary Site Specific: 

In Plain Site. Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

In Plain Site, presented by ArtPower. Trisha Brown Dance Company performed site-specific work created by the late postmodern pioneer. The work was adapted for the UC San Diego campus. Viewers walked to see hypnotic dances set under giant eucalyptus trees and finally catch glimpses of dancers perched on multi-level buildings as if teleported from the 1970s. It was a dance history lesson one won’t forget.

Trolley Dances, presented by San Diego Dance Theater. This year’s choreographers included founder Jean Isaacs, Los Angeles-based Rebecca Bruno, Debi Toth-Ward, Dave Massey and Ron “RJ” Davis. This was one of the most challenging installations with bumpy walks through neighborhoods and visceral commentary about inequality and urban life. Bravo to Toth-Ward for creating unforgettable dance theater in a dark parking garage.

Unlikely Collaborations:

California Ballet and San Diego Musical Theatre co-produced Billy Elliot the Musical, the Tony-Award-winning show about a British working-class boy who dreams of being a ballet dancer.

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks performed with Brooklyn Rider.  At last, La Jolla Music Society provided live music for their dance season.

Stellar Performances:

Erica Alvarado and Derek Lauer dance the Spring duet in “Seasons.” Image: Chelsea Penyak

Ariana and Geoff Gonzalez in City Ballet of San Diego’s Seasons and Carmen. With the City Ballet Orchestra playing Vivaldi and Bizet, the Gonzalez duo brought us solid technique and delicate partnering as well as expressive acting required by the best ballet dancers.

Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalez and the City Ballet Company were also stellar in the fantasy and tragedy found in the program Balanchine and Beyond, especially “Hallelujah Junction,” accompanied by two pianos on stage.

Ms. Gonzalez ruled the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and newcomer Iago Breschi was lean and outstanding as her Cavalier.  City Ballet casts adults in rotation as Clara, and Jessie Leigh Olson sparkled on opening night.

The women of Lavina Rich’s Push Process shook the Sunset Temple in North Park. Rich’s program of new works was inspired by feminism, politics, and housewives, and included tap dancing and an expanded version of her breakthrough work Universal (Marvin’s Remix). 

Randall Hickman as Ursula in Moonlight’s The Little Mermaid.  Loud and outrageous, Hickman transformed a saccharine kiddy show into a tentacled delight that adults could love.  Tap dancing was also a kick. The show sold more tickets than any other production to date.

Impeccable Timing for a Musical

In the Heights at Moonlight Amphitheatre. As the craze of Hamilton grows, (a tour is hits San Diego in January), it was a joy to experience the first chapter of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius. The production directed by James Vasquez was stunning on every level and filled the outdoor stage with jaw-dropping Latin and hip-hop choreography, soaring vocals, and a stellar orchestra, led by Elan McMahan.

Sunset Blvd. After the lighthearted and sell out Little Mermaid, Moonlight took a chance and switched gears with this dark movie redo. Operatic and tragic, Sunset Blvd. under the stars was a serious theatre experience, and we couldn’t stop repeating that famous line, “I’m ready for my close up.”  Car chase projections, movie sets, vintage costumes, and salty language planted the fable in the past. We laughed and squirmed because the drama and conclusion seem ripped from today’s headlines.

Breaking Stereotypes through Musical Theater

The touring production’s finale of “Kinky Boots” Image: Matthew Murphy

The sound quality for Kinky Boots was wonderfully crisp, and so was the message. Inspired by true events, the Kinky Boots story has become a mainstream parable:  Charlie, owner of a struggling British shoe factory forms an unlikely partnership with Lola, a drag queen. They discover they are not so different after all. There was too much sing yelling in this production, but given the current political trauma and fits over transgender people using restrooms, there was a call to action, and the crowd’s enthusiasm continued to the resounding finale, “Raise You Up/Just Be.”

Matilda, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring musical, arrived at the Civic Theatre to frighten and enlighten. Lurking under the exaggerated comedy and dancing are lessons about courage and justice. Edgy and wonderfully smart, Matilda redefines the family musical.

Most striking is how vividly author Dennis Kelly and composer-lyricist-comedian Tim Minchin translate Dahl’s dark and quirky tale for the stage. Every character is outlandish and irreverent, which appeals to children of all ages, especially girls who don’t like pink or chick flicks.

Wish List and Tiny Rants

Previews sell tickets, but they aren’t enough: Publishers big and small forget that it’s lazy and unethical to whip up a top 5 or 10 list without viewing a performance. Dance often gets the short stick on this one, and that’s why needs your continued support.

Go Nuts:

I was impressed by Southern California Ballet’s The Nutcracker. (I wrote about the school and staff early this year for Dance Teacher Magazine). While it’s a giant recital for students, teens have excellent technique and silent landings.  Superb guest dancers make it a real show.  Costumes and sets are eye-popping at the Poway Center for the Arts, and Mother Ginger gives birth to Russian nesting dolls. Mark your calendar for next year.

A Culture Shock Nutcracker with edgy hip hop runs January 5-8 at the Spreckels, but many families and friends tell me they’re too burned out to do another Christmas program.  Could they change the date next year?

San Diegans flew to Oakland to see Mark Morris’s Hard Nut.  Disney is going to the dark side with a Nutcracker film.  Disney released the trailer for “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” this month. It hits theaters in Nov. 2018. In the film, Clara finds a key to a mysterious parallel universe.  Morgan Freeman portrays Drosselmeyer. Ballerina Misty Copleand is also featured. Local dance and theater troupes would be smart to tap this trend.

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  1. KMW on December 31, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    Bravo to LJMS re presenting dance w/live music.

    • Peter Kalivas on January 4, 2018 at 5:45 pm

      Dear KMW,

      Commonly, Local Professional groups such as: The California Ballet, San Diego City Ballet, The San Diego Ballet, Malashock Dance, my own company – The PGK Dance Project, Mojalet Dance Collective, Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater, among up to 10 more I can easily name present dance w/live music regularly. If interested in seeing more and or insuring this phenomenon continues please do reach out. I would be happy to help if you don’t want to wait for the next import.

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