The Monthly — June 2012
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In good faith
On an April morning, the Shawl- Anderson dance studio in Berkeley is packed with shoeless women. They are here for a 90-minute class in praise dance, a liturgical performance genre that focuses as much on worship and “ministry” as it does on movement.

Taught by Tecsia Evans, founder of the Ross Dance Company, a professional praise dance troupe based in Oakland, the class is rigorous and joyous, supportive yet demanding. “You are strong,” Evans reminds the dancers as they practice an upward arm thrust. “Use it—don’t give me that daisy stuff.”

The kind of movement that Evans elicits is focused but flows easily, with turns dissolving into stretches, lunges splattering into small hops. The studio fills with a spirit of reverence, reminiscent of choreographer Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.”

Since its emergence in the mid- ’60s, Christian praise dance has developed into a widespread phenomenon, particularly within African-American churches. A testament to its appeal is the annual Bay Area Praise Dance Conference and Festival, organized for the past three years by Evans’s Ross Dance and culminating this year with a June 24 concert at Laney College that will feature praise dance performers from across California.

Even more than an artistic practice, says Evans, praise dance is a form of religious celebration, a way of “bringing people closer to Christ.” A former student of modern dance at U.C. Berkeley—she also has a Ph.D. from the California School of Professional Psychology— Evans founded Ross Dance in 2005 as a result of her own spiritual evolution. “I like to push at the edge,” she says.

Praise Dance Concert, Sunday, June 24, 7 p.m., Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland; $15-$20; (510) 828-5760 or —Rita Felciano


Woman’s lab
Lauren Gunderson has plays about women scientists down to a science. Just last year, the 30-year-old San Francisco playwright debuted Silent Sky, about early 20th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, and the children’s musical, The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog!, about a little girl scientist. Now Symmetry Theatre Company stages the local premiere of Gunderson’s 2009 play, Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.

The title character, a real-life 18th-century French physicist, was known for translating Isaac Newton— and improving on some of his ideas. She was also a lover and sometime collaborator of Voltaire’s. Curiously, Emilie premiered at Orange County’s South Coast Repertory three weeks before another play about du Châtelet, Karen Zacarias’s Legacy of Light, debuted at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Gunderson, who lives in San Francisco, has projects in the works with Bay Area companies including Shotgun Players and Crowded Fire.

Symmetry, though, makes an especially good fit for Emilie. Founded two years ago, the Berkeley company is dedicated to giving equal time to women’s stories and addressing gender imbalance in onstage roles (the ladies typically get short shrift). Yet Symmetry’s production of Emilie bends the balance the other way. Besides Emilie and Voltaire, the script calls for two women and one man, but Symmetry adds an extra guy to give Emilie’s husband (the Marquis) and lover (Jean-François) their due. In any event, the play helps ensure that a scientist who struggled against the gender roles of her day won’t be forgotten in ours.

Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, June 3-July 1; Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley; $18-$25; (415) 377-0457 or —Sam Hurwitt


Spanish inquisition
Spain’s early music pioneer Jordi Savall brings two programs to Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on June 9 and 10, billed as “A Dialogue of Souls.” Featuring a typically Savallian array of music, the concerts were conceived as a musical conversation exploring the connections between Arab- Andalusian, Jewish, and Christian music from medieval Spain and the surrounding Mediterranean.

But the title also evokes the vast sense of loss that accompanies Savall on this trip, his first Bay Area performance since the death last November of his wife and creative partner, Montserrat Figueras, an incandescent soprano and formidable scholar. Together, they founded Hespèrion XX (now Hespèrion XXI), a vehicle for exploring neglected music from 15thand 16th-century Spain. They also created the medieval music chorus La Capella Reial de Catalunya.

Savall is best known for his virtuosity on the viola da gamba, but for this program he’s playing rebec (an early violin), bowed lyre, and rebab (spiked fiddle). He’s joined by Hespèrions Dimitri Psonis on Moorish guitar and santur (a Persian hammer dulcimer), and David Mayoral on percussion.

Saturday’s program investigates the musical currents connecting East and West, with music from medieval Spain and the Ottoman Empire, medieval Italy, and Persian Afghanistan. On Sunday, Istanbul is the locus for a similarly diverse program featuring Sephardic, Armenian, and Turkish music documented in the 300-year-old Book of Science and Music by Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir.

Presented by Cal Performances, the San Francisco Early Music Society, and Early Music America, Savall performs as part of the 2012 Berkeley Festival & Exhibition.

Jordi Savall, “A Dialogue of Souls,” June 9-10, First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley; $60; (510) 642-9988 or —Andrew Gilbert


Army of ones
For San Francisco’s Wanxin Zhang, whose ceramic sculptures are now on view at the Richmond Art Center, cultural mashups make perfect sense. Zhang, who grew up during Mao’s 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, once aspired to create propaganda for the Great Helmsman; he worked through years of rigorous art-school training in ceramics. By graduation, however, he was disillusioned: Mao had died, and China was cautiously embracing limited capitalism. Zhang emigrated to the Bay Area in 1992, where he fell in love with clay anew in our experimental creative climate.

Zhang returned to his roots—in a sense, anyway—thanks to the famous 1974 discovery and excavation of an army of terra-cotta figures near the third-century B.C.E. tomb of the First Emperor, in Shanxi province. These 8,000 warriors provide the template for Zhang’s ruminations on history, culture, individualism, and collectivism. Twenty of his monumental figures stand at attention in the show, expressionist coil-and-slab figures that exude turbulent power. They also exude sly humor, with traditional body armor and queues updated with anachronistic cell phones, binoculars, and bedrolls—and the roundeyed granny glasses familiar to both Trotskyists and Lennonists.

Cultural icons combine syncretically in “Warhol Mao,” who stands next to a panhandler, a backpacker, and a warrior dad who is apparently—judging by his toddler’s cap—headed for Disneyland. Other pieces have a cutting political edge: “Imperfect Square II” depicts Tienanmen Square’s heroic Tank Man; the sad, black figure of “Inauguration Day,” made to commemorate Obama’s presidency, gazes upon a melting merger of the Capitol Dome and the Forbidden City in “Impossible III.” Two goggled, gas-masked soldiers face off facelessly, part pig and part bug.

Wanxin Zhang: A Ten-Year Survey, April 3-June 2, Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Ave., Richmond; (510) 620-6772 or —DeWitt Cheng


Decent acting
The Pacific Film Archive retrospective, “Gregory Peck: An Agreeable Gentleman,” takes its seemingly innocuous title from one of the straight-arrow actor’s defining early successes. In Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Peck played a diligent reporter who goes undercover to experience anti-Semitism. Although the movie isn’t included in the series, its reference evokes everything we admire as well as bemoan about the late Gregory Peck.

Peck was a man of decency and integrity, onscreen and off, and those qualities inspired respect and fondness among moviegoers at every strata of American society. From his portrayal of a priest doing God’s work in backwoods China in the 1944 travelogue, The Keys to the Kingdom (June 13), to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird (June 24, one of just two titles in this series made after 1960), Peck exuded fairness, bedrock trustworthiness, and (let’s face it) square-jaw good looks.

He was great at conveying dogged determination, notably as a loyal lieutenant in Korea in Pork Chop Hill (June 16), but Peck could also come across as stiff and mannered. He wasn’t especially comfortable or adept at expressing his characters’ flaws and shortcomings, although he did his best in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (June 21) as an ad man whose staid, successful life is an unexpected step down from his World War II adventures and heroics. Peck is far from my favorite screen actor, but I’ll give him this: At his best, he was more than agreeable.

“Gregory Peck: An Agreeable Gentleman,” June 13-29, Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley; (510) 642-1412 or —Michael Fox