Rhapsody in View

Thunder and lightning from the Mark Foehringer Dance Project

Only one among the five works on Summerfest/dance's second program really begged for a second viewing: Mark Foehringer's Rhapsodia. On paper, the piece doesn't sound like an obvious candidate for the distinction. It is a Clue-style murder mystery set to Rachmaninov, replete with a cast of glamorous, idiosyncratic characters, lightning, and thunder. It is, in a word, wacky. But its zany plot cooks along with clarity and economy, and Foehringer's off-kilter, ballet-based vocabulary keeps it interesting.

At any rate, the “second viewing” honor isn't an especially exalted one. Aside from its recognition of the work's artistic quality, there's always the possibility that the piece will look significantly different the second time around, and with Rhapsodia that is almost assured. The members of Foehringer's remarkably professional pickup troupe, for all their technical solidity and dramatic expression, hadn't quite made the material their own — hadn't quite shaped and phrased it to take it to the next level — by the time their moment arrived in Summerfest/dance. But there's a good chance that has changed over the course of last week, while the company was performing a second season in New York's Joyce SoHo Theater (the Joyce Theater's second-string venue). And it just so happens there is another chance to see Rhapsodia in San Francisco: This weekend, when the Mark Foehringer Dance Project presents its fifth anniversary season at Theater Artaud.

That the piece reached a coherent state in time for the Summerfest performance took Foehringer himself by surprise. No one was certain it would when the dancers premiered the work in Mountain View, where Foehringer is artistic director for the pre-professional Western Ballet, in late March. “Going into the theater I think all of the dancers did not believe it would come together because it was too kooky,” Foehringer says, sitting at a cafe in his Lower Haight neighborhood just a few days before departing for New York. “I had choreographed the sections all out of order and I had everybody very confused and they weren't sure if it was going to happen. And we got to the theater and it was just all there.”

Inspiration for the piece came, oddly enough, out of Brazil. Foehringer, a strapping, pale-faced man with an air of Midwestern sweetness, moved to São Paulo at age 7 with his Lutheran missionary parents and attended a boarding school for Americans. “South America has a terrible rainy season and during that season we children had to play inside all day, and we'd sit at the table and play Clue,” he says. “And it was like a real-life murder mystery, with real thunder outside and every once in a while the lights would go out.”

Foehringer moved to the Bay Area 10 years ago, but his dances still look decidedly unlike anything else on this dance scene. His Brazilian influences are so jumbled they're almost impossible to trace: He trained classically but joined the Cisne Negro Company, which on top of the ballet standards performs a lot of ballet-styled folk dance. Because the companies that toured Brazil were mostly European, he grew up watching works by Kylian, Hans Van Manen, Neumeier, and Cranko. Add to this Foehringer's specialty as a character dancer — over-the-top miming roles like Caraboose and Drosselmeyer were his forte — and you have a definitely heterogeneous choreographic sensibility. Even the programming this weekend might strike some viewers as schizophrenic. Aside from the goofiness of Rhapsodia, there's the company's introspective signature piece Here to There, the lyrical After a Dream, the ebullient Concerto Grosso, and the lighthearted pop music medley Jammies.

Foehringer's still sorting it all out, even on the most fundamental level. “I'm going through that weird phase where I'll try to describe my work to a ballet dancer and they'll see it and say, “Oh my God, it's modern,'” he says. “And I have modern dancers who see it and say, “Oh my God, it's ballet.'”

But Foehringer's movement mélange is serving him well, and as everything for the home season began to jell, his thoughts were on getting more exposure through the all-important New York gig, a validation process he feels markedly ambivalent about. “It was good for everyone morale-wise, but truthfully it didn't change us in any way,” he says of the troupe's debut at the Joyce SoHo last week. “Except it broadened our audience base. We could do nothing but roll around on the floor for hours during our performance, but as long as we went to New York, it helps us.”

The company is already committed to return to the East Coast next year and after that, Foehringer says, “We're hoping to move up into the big house,” meaning the Joyce itself. But, though it seems just as unlikely a setting for him as Brazil, the Bay Area has become Foehringer's true home. “In New York everybody is afraid,” he says. “It's very difficult. Here nobody seems afraid, and it's a good place to be.”

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