The year in dance began as a bummer, but it's ending on a note of hope. In January, Oakland Ballet closed its doors. This week they're back — sort of — with former artistic director Ronn Guidi's Nutcracker. What happened? Guidi wouldn't face reality, that's what. He never has. He didn't program George Balanchine when everyone else was jumping on that bandwagon. He commissioned female choreographers when few others would. Throughout his career he swam against the stream, pursuing what he loved most, in particular almost-forgotten ballets from the ’20s and ’30s. Guidi's successor, Karen Brown, valiantly tried to take the company — already in deep disarray when she started her tenure — in a new direction. Unfortunately, it didn't work. Now there is at least a glimmer of hope that Oakland Ballet will resurrect itself.
On a broader level, the year has been great for Asian dance — even if the label no longer fits (if it ever did). Remarkably diverse first-rate artists have emerged from that huge continent for some time, but this year has been a particularly rich one for them. The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble brought slightly updated, spectacularly expressive Odissi dance from eastern India. Japanese-born Eiko and Koma worked with exquisitely trained young artists from Cambodia. Sankai Juku may be based in Paris these days, but the company’s lush version of Butoh is both its own and distinctly Japanese. From Taiwan, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre's physicalization of calligraphy was an extraordinary example of how dance can shape time and space. The Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company's lovely celebration of the richness of its country's culture even acknowledged its colonizer, Spain. Locally, Gamelan Sekar Jaya continued its collaboration with Balinese artists in a simple new work dance intended as a response to the 2002 bombings of that island's night clubs. If these artists have anything in common, it is that their work's visual appeal sometimes supersedes choreographic values.
The following "12 of 2006" are not to be construed as the best but simply as events and artists for whose work I am particularly grateful. They are listed alphabetically.
1. At its local premiere, Paul Taylor's antiwar Banquet of Vultures seemed over the top. I have since changed my mind. Taylor has made many dark pieces; I now think Banquet can stand with the best of them. The trajectory of this trip into hell, set to an unlikely Morton Feldman score, was masterfully realized. When Taylor is good, he still is tops.
2. Counter Phrases was a lush, breathtaking dance film from Belgium, presented as part of San Francisco Performances' Dance/Screen series. Created by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and Thierry de Mey, it featured commissioned scores (created after the visuals) and used the medium with great skill and extraordinary imagination.
3. Doug Varone and Dancers made a rare appearance in the Bay Area, courtesy of San Francisco Performances. Varone shapes generous and humane impulses into highly athletic and musically astute choreography that brings out his dancers' individuality. He is a much underrated artist.
4. Brazilian Paco Gomes, an experienced choreographer but a relative newcomer to the Bay Area, presented meticulously detailed, smartly timed minidramas that were fun to watch and told us something about ourselves. Gomes is also uncommonly skilled at integrating modern elements into an Afro-Brazilian dance vocabulary for evocations of Candomblé rituals. His dancers — eight women and one man — can do it all.
5. Liss Fain has been making unspectacular but carefully structured, ballet-inspired modern dance for many years. She chooses excellent but demanding music and works with good designers and fine dancers. This year she moved her season to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. That's where she belongs.
6. Hell's Kitchen Dance featured a group of talented, barely post-college-age dancers from New York who work out of Mikhail Baryshnikov's Art Center. Traveling with the still great dancer, they presented works by Benjamin Millepied and the promising Canadian Azure Barton. Barton's skippy goofiness, as cleanly realized as if it had been planned on graph paper, was a major discovery.
7. Margaret Jenkins has been thinking about and making dance for many years. For A Slipping Glimpse, she and her dancers traveled to India to work with the modern dance Tanusree Shankar Dance Company. The collaboration resulted in a beautifully planned, exquisitely realized meditation — one of Jenkins's best.
8. If I had to choose my favorite event of 2006, it would have to be "Kathak at the Crossroads," the conference Pandit Chitresh Das organized to consider Kathak's future in light of its past. Each of the 21 solo dancers who performed during those three days put new twists on a noble art.
9. Lyon Opera Ballet's triple bill at Cal Performances featured neither toe shoes nor tutus. Instead it brought an inspiring triple bill by musically literate, kinetically gifted female choreographers who could not be more different from each other: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Sasha Waltz, and Maguy Marin.
10. San Francisco Ballet: what can I say? It's a great company. Helgi Tomasson's wide-ranging repertoire allows dancers from around the globe to be who they are and yet work with a common purpose. Of the two local premieres, William Forsythe's Artifact Suite challenged the massive corps like nothing has before; Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun showed what magic two self-absorbed dancers can create.
11. In an area that produces dance festivals quite regularly, the San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest has a future. To be able to watch hip-hop artists — who hail from all over these days — take what used to be a street form and reshape it into increasingly sophisticated theatrical dance is just a delight.
12. At both the WestWave Dance Festival and in her own concert, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart proved how much she has grown as a choreographer. With imagination and a flair for humor, she takes a skeptical look at the world and turns her perceptions into deftly choreographed characters and narratives.<\!s>