SUNDAY, JULY 10, 2016, Selections from SPF9

by Heather Desaulniers Dance Commentary

SAFEhouse Arts presents SPF9 (Summer Performance Festival)

ODC Theater, San Francisco

“With its four segments, each set to a different musical selection, SHE WENT/4 solos is a narrative exploration, to be sure. Though it was actually Cunningham’s choreography that spoke volumes for me. As in the first solo, each individual chapter mixed recognizable dance vocabulary with unpredictable physical activity and pedestrian tasks. Deconstructing norms and assumptions of what movement can or should ‘fit’ together, Cunningham seamlessly crafted each phrase into a choreographic stream of consciousness. Solo number two featured a repetitive footwork pattern of turned in lunges and traditional pas de bourées with moments of quiet and repose in open fourth position. The third movement was filled with quick isolations and sharp contractions, interspersed with deep pliés in second position.SHE WENT/4 solos’ closing chapter revisited the pas de bourée motif, this time accompanied by parallel developpés, mimed jumping rope and sitting amongst the audience. And the great thing about these kaleidoscopic movement sequences is that in each instance, surprise abounded – every moment a delicious departure from the expected.”

SHE WENT phase 4
SAFEhouse Arts, San Francisco
August 22nd, 2015

“Without exception, every RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) evening reminds me how important risk is to the performing arts. This definitely held true as SAFEhouse Arts showcased a triptych of experimental dance created and performed by women this past weekend. Featuring Alma Esperanza Cunningham’s hard-hitting, hypnotizing SHE WENT phase 4, “

“There is no doubt that Cunningham has created a narratively charged contemporary work with SHE WENT phase 4, though for me, it was the structural properties and formal composition that captivated.  

“The egalitarianism that had been established at the outset continued, demystifying the relationship between performer and audience and challenging comfort levels. One dancer hit various positions (long arabesque, front attitude) very close to audience members, while another brushed a few viewers with her hair. The spatial awareness demonstrated by all three performers was also striking. Throughout SHE WENT phase 4, they traveled blindly (and quickly) backwards in space, often very close to one another and never once collided.”

BAYWATCH, a forum for writing about contemporary dance in the SF Bay Area

She Went/Phase 3 at Dance Mission/DIRT

BAYWATCH, February 2015/Marie Tollon

“There’s so much about the work that it is about playing with gaze, viewer and viewed perceptions. The work seemed to also touch upon and subvert the way women/dancers are portrayed and displayed, performing these traditional presentational poses (like the passé that lasts forever, or the foot-in-your-hand développé which seems to be borrowed to gymnastic competitions). Here the dancers, although embodying the exterior shape, offered a blank, empty and disconnected look. Throughout the piece, without ever falling into becoming literal, Alma touches upon so many stigmas and cliches associated with the female body in society and performance alike….”

BAYWATCH, February 2015/Kate Mattingly

“…alma’s work turned the proposition of “political” into movement exploration that altered a sense of space and time – and by calling attention to our subjectivity (to our experience of self within an environment) this shifted what we know to be “true” or “real” or “valid”


The Feminine Mystique

By Irene Hsiao
Wednesday, Jul 3 2013

After a five-year hiatus, Goldie award-winning choreographer Alma Esperanza Cunningham marks the revival of her postmodern dance company with Change … and other meditations, presented as part of the Resident Artists Workshop. Combining movements that are athletic and balletic with others snagged from everyday life, objects, and animals, Cunningham explores femininity in a piece for four women that muses on birth, death, illness, and survival, inspired by recent experiences in her own life. Made to be viewed in the round, Cunningham’s stripped-down work is abstract and a little wacky, filled out with silent screams, aggressive partnering, and understated moments of crisis and community, juxtaposed against the music of Gavin Bryars. The result is an experimental work that demonstrates the resilience of women in the context of an upsetting and unexpected world.
July 10-11, 8 p.m., 2013


“Always wielding a potent force, whether barefoot or wearing high heels.”

New York Times/Claudia La Rocco

Woman as Temptress and Coquettish Menace

Published: July 10, 2007
There’s something undeniable about the sexual power of a woman in heels.

There’s something creepy and unnatural about it, too. Especially when those women are dancers, sometimes barefoot, as they alternately pick and rampage their way through Alma Esperanza Cunningham’s uneven but potent “Princess,” as seen Friday at the Joyce SoHo. Ms. Cunningham, a San Francisco choreographer, was joined by the Brooklyn-based Daniel Linehan, who presented a work in progress, “Not About Everything.”

“Look at her hopping around. What’s so good about Abby?” one of the four dancers mused in “Princess,” her lazy drawl acquiring a nasty edge, as Abigail Munn took awkward little jumps in her pink polka-dotted heels, one long leg held by Rosemary Hannon. “It’s just her shoes — Rosemary just wants her shoes.”

So much for female solidarity. Ms. Cunningham likes her politics served up with equal doses of menace and inanity.

“Now Ingrid feels really insecure. She’s feeling fat,” the tall, skinny Ms. Hannon commented, as the more solidly built Ingrid Heilke and Larissa Thomas grappled fiercely with each other like wrestlers, acting out an unhealthy romance.

Their meaty power moves offset jutting, delicate steps and balances, as Ms. Cunningham sent her “Princess” lurching from one mood to the next. As feminism, like the arts, staggers through a gantlet of “post-this and that” labels, the rules of engagement keep getting fuzzier. At some point in this 40-minute work, though, you stop questioning Ms. Cunningham’s rules, even as they constrict the performers, creating a pinched, cruel space.


Review of “HURT” by Charlotte Shoemaker, January 2006

Women on the Way, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, California

The final piece “Hurt” (premier) choreographed by Alma Esperanza Cunningham consisted entirely of unique, accomplished and forceful dancing. It began with an intricate duet skillfully danced in silence by Leigh Riley and Rosemary Hannon who were horizontal as they moved around and over their own extended arms and legs, skittering like insects towards us. They shivered, sneezed and ran. Their heavy breathing was not simply the result of exertion; it also created a space into which they danced with open arms. Their dance was immediately followed by music (played by the Kronos Quartet) and Ashley Taylor’s powerful solo. Her movements were big, wide and grounded. Audible breathing was also a part of the choreography in this segment as she blew into her outstretched hands and then fluttered them creating an almost tangible sphere of her energy. The title is intriguing; both the choreography and the dancing exuded strength and complexity. This was the sort of injury that once healed is stronger than it ever was before. So here too, in the only plotless dance of the evening, is a kind of story.

serious moonlight


Rachel Howard Published 4:00 am, Sunday, January 29, 2006
Alma Esperanza Cunningham’s dancers move like exotic birds, legs preening precisely, center of gravity carried high in the back. This young New York-transplant choreographer has made derriere-wagging dances to the music of David Bowie, and intensely intimate ones in silence. Her excellent company is stocked with long-limbed women of rock-star glamour, and her still-forming aesthetic is one of the more distinctive on the Bay Area scene.

(415) 305-8912.



The Lesser-Known 


Rachel Howard

The Jon Sims Center for the Performing Arts is a tiny, unassuming venue on Mission and Eleventh Streets with some truly wonderful residency programs for choreographers. The main performance space has three tiers of risers for a total of maybe 30 seats, and an elevator door at the back of the stage area that resembles the entrance to a meat locker. Accordingly, the fourth home season for Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement is low-tech; the lighting is rudimentary, and the four dancers wear black bathing suit-like trunks and tanks. The 40-minute premiere, “sheshesheshe,” is performed in silence; reportedly Cunningham commissioned a score that didn’t work. But though the trappings aren’t spectacular, the movement is engrossing. I saw the piece last Friday—the run continues this weekend and next—and never for a minute was I bored.

Alma Esperanza Cunningham trained at the Marin Ballet School as a child, and her work uses a high center of gravity and balletically precise legs. Arms are often pinned to the sides, torsos torquing a la that more famous Cunningham, but Esperanza Cunningham is less intensely interested in the tweakings of anatomy, more drawn to overtly emotional gesture. She’s made rigorously formal works, and outright theatrical ones too. I followed her work closely until the unveiling of a dance set to David Bowie songs that was clever in parts, unbearably self-indulgent in others. I was excited to see with this latest piece that Cunningham is worth following again.

“sheshesheshe” (a better title is in order) describes itself as investigating “the space between individuality and community through a series of tasks that illustrate the complexity of relationships regardless of gender and/or sexual orientation.” I was hard-pressed to identify the tasks at play, and the gender-bending aspects of the piece are old hat. But I was thoroughly absorbed by the intimacy and the atmosphere of risk. Kate Filbert and Ryan T. Smith face the audience as she raises her leg in a high side extension that evokes the traditional grand pas de deux. But with some more manipulation, she falls like a plank to the floor. After much running circles, a tango-like two-step, and a snippet of stylized kickboxing, they stand and stare at each other, not seeing one another at all.

Rosemary Hannon and Wendy Rein enter, walking with high retirés like exotic birds, suddenly jutting squiggly hips. One woman hits the other’s elbow with her head, which sets off a shifting of shoulders like dominoes falling. They hug—and suddenly they see each other, deeply. Hannon tilts Rein upside down, and Rein walks her fingers along her body and across the floor. Later, after our main couple returns for a tense slow-dance, like nervous kids at the prom, both groups will do the finger-walk. Stasis this is not.

The dancers are gorgeous. Filbert has a rock-star face and mesmerizing turnout; Smith is a broad-shouldered fellow with a tender, troubled gaze. Lean, pale Hannon is like an elegant egret; Rein has big baby doll eyes and the air of a poetess. Their strength and connectedness give Cunningham’s gestures a controlled drama. For info on Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement’s remaining shows, click here.

April 13, 2005 · 11:40 AM · Dance · Comments (0)


“Stardust” Review by James Sullivan

Choreographer: Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement                

 Venue 9, 252 Ninth St., San Francisco

Serious moonlight: Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement interprets David Bowie in dance in "Stardust" at Venue 9. Photo by Liz Payne

Serious moonlight: Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement interprets David Bowie in dance in “Stardust”

Note the Second Coming of Cunningham!  Innovative and fiercely original, Alma has crafted a site- specific work for Venue 9. Stardust is a suite of five dances with songs from David Bowie’s glam-rock period. The intriguing use of space, startling rhythms and theatrical experience make this a savvy, unconventional spin on pop culture. Cunningham has gained an avid following as a regular guest at Venue 9 and in shows at The Cowell, Dance Mission, The Lab, and ODC.

“I don’t know where she’s heading, but I’d follow her anywhere.” – Zimmer, Village Voice


Photo by Liz Payne




“The Hello Show” and “Piledriver”  review By Rita Felciano
Double Header Project,  Dance Mission Theater, SF,CA
May 2004

Cunningham’s is one of the Bay Area’s newest refreshingly independent voices. She works from a high-centered ballet base with fast and incisive attacks and an almost geometrically planned sense of space. At the same her choreography exhales an insouciant quirkiness that imbues her moves with a pretend mechanicalness that is both formally attractive and disarmingly casual.

PILEdriver, set to an eponymous score made from sounds collected at the local dump, gave Cunningham the steady beat for a furiously paced duet for Kate Filbert and Ryan T. Smith. An egalitarian affair, the works opens with Filbert rubbing her hands in a “let’s go” gesture. Her trajectory sends her careening in hops and leaps and jetés, looking side to side but without any particular sense of expectation. Slow walks pull her into herself; at point she simply stands in a stiff-legged tight fifth position. When Smith enters, the choreography becomes more sharply sculptural, some of it quasi-traditional in the way he supports her. But even the more acrobatic sections, flips and such, look unforced and wonderfully integrated. A central section has a quasi sleep-walking quality to it in which the two of them seem very much in tune with each. One particularly charming moment had Filbert hop in supported arabesque, accompanied by the tinkling sound of a toy piano, probably also found at the dump.

The Hello Show, an ensemble piece for five women and two men, opens with a set of posing instructions, as they might be given to a photographer’s model. Constructed on top of a collage of music that ranges from Patty Smith to Steve Reich and Psychadelic Furs to Journey, Hello’s various episodes mix images from pop culture—teen magazines, TV, fashion spreads—and dissolves them both straightforwardly and with a cheeky wit. A mostly spoken duet for two men in blond wigs, involving the arduous task of pulling on panty hose, also serves as an autobiographical account for a choreographer who is considering making a feminist version of The Red Shoes. It’s an unlikely muddle that, however, had its moments of wit. The piece as whole, however, was more interesting in the way Cunningham shifted her perspective between what might be called found movement and her ability to refocus it, than as an unity in itself. A premiere, Hello Show deserves some rethinking.

The program concluded with Run. Set to Steve Reich’s propulsive electric guitar, it was originally done outdoors, and looked at the permutations possible with four dancers. A good piece, it kept me wondering about its title. There didn’t seem to be much running involved.



Rita Felciano

Alma Esperanza Cunningham
IT MAY BE difficult to see the “bun head” – the affectionate nickname by which young ballet dancers are known – in the athletically built Alma Esperanza Cunningham. But a ballet class in her native Novato is exactly where one of the freshest voices in Bay Area dance began. Cunningham went on to study for eight years, following – at first very reluctantly – two older sisters to Marin Ballet for those never-ending pliés, tendus, and arabesques. The experience left a mark on this coolly smart artist. Today she draws on ballet’s clarity and discipline with the same passion she applies to pop culture.

In The Hello Show, a septet for her four-year-old Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement, Cunningham dissolves and highlights commercial images of female beauty straightforwardly and with cheeky wit. Punk confrontation and balletic reserve naturally cohabit in Cunningham’s PILEdriver, a duet inspired by a score based on sounds from the San Francisco dump. Run, originally created for the Yerba Buena Gardens Choreographers Festival, is clearly inspired by fashion models’ poses. The deliberately awkward Door Jam allows two tomboys to discover each other and themselves.

At this point in her still-young career, Cunningham already mixes movement vocabularies in service of a voice that’s distinctly her own. Her dancers perform from a high center of gravity, relying on fast and precise attacks and a controlled use of space. There’s a pretend mechanical quality about them that renders the choreography disarmingly casual; at times they look like puppets or like they’re on stilts. The choreography is full of non sequiturs and unexpected twists and turns – specific, very recognizable gestures pop up like corks. During a recent rehearsal, for instance, an arabesque, that most traditional of ballet moves, collapses onto the floor with the dancer dragging a leg behind like somebody who had fallen out of a wheelchair. “I like these gestures,” Cunningham explains afterward. “They remind us that we are people.”

When she was 15, Cunningham quit dancing to develop, as she puts it, “more of a social life” than ballet’s demands had allowed. She didn’t return to dance until eight years later, engaging in the usual mix of modern, jazz, hip-hop, and summer classes at the Alvin Ailey American Dance School in New York. She spent five years there, then returned to the Bay Area in 2000. Why? “I wanted to be close to my family.” Show dancing – performed during business conventions and marketing shows – also probably left its mark on this serious but refreshingly unpolemical choreographer. “It’s cheesy,” she admits, “but so much fun.”

Pop culture is Cunningham’s birthright, in part because her El Salvador-born mother adored Madonna. At the same time, she’s remained wise about its more egregious excesses. “There is something magical about something that is so widespread and that is so all-consuming for so many people,” she says. “Just think about Las Vegas, for instance. So much creativity devoted to building a whole world for just a year or two.” (Rita Felciano)

For more reviews just google Alma Esperanza Cunningham or Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement



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