By Scott MacClelland
OF ALL THE AUDIENCES I regularly join at Sunset Center, none displays more enthusiasm than the one for Smuin Dance. The company’s appearance on Saturday afternoon, the last in its Dance Series 01 tour this season, dazzled—they always get that adjective from me—in a program that ranged from the sublime to the silly, from the mischievous choreography by Garrett Ammon of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, to a ritualistic and ecstatic work by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa of a movement from Schubert’s String Quintet in C, to Michael Smuin’s evergreen Fly Me to the Moon, a Frank Sinatra homage first staged in 2004.*
The company of ten dancers opened Serenade for Strings in off-white pale colors—the men wore dark trousers—lit from the wings. (Above photo by Keith Sutter.) The piece entered Smuin’s repertoire in 2014, having been premiered the year before at Wonderbound in Denver. There was whimsy throughout, with small provocative gestures of hands and feet among a whole kit of clever bits. (Men lying supine on the stage upskirting the embarrassed women was a new one on me.) Tchaikovsky’s piece is in four movements, the first, in the form of a sonatina, beginning and ending with a formal striding bit that is recalled at the end for the last movement as well. For that, Ammon has his dancers assume a more ceremonial style. Otherwise its fun and games. In the third movement, Elegy, he inserts elements from classical ballet. The finale, Tema russo, runs with riotous good cheer. Featured pairs were Erica Felsch and Robert Kretz, Erica Chipp-Adams and Mengjun Chen, Valerie Harmon and Dustin James, Terez Dean and Rex Wheeler.
Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for A Rose premiered in 2009 at Pennsylvania Ballet. See her lucid backstory in preparation for Smuin’s production.
The piece opened with Erica Felsch as the solo Venus, in white with a red rose clenched in her teeth, and subtle clouds of fog in the air above the stage. Heavy percussive pulsing sound effects provided accompaniment. Soon she was joined by 12 dancers, all in rose-red kilts, the men bare-chested, the women in skin-colored tops, for a sequence of four duets and one quartet. The almost-religious long slow Adagio from Schubert’s Quintet inspired a ritualistic character to the dance. Key lights were used to enhance the dance pairs Valerie Harmon and Oliver-Paul Adams, Terez Dean and Dustin James, Erica Chipp-Adams and Robert Kretz, and Nicole Haskins and Ben Needham-Wood. For the highly turbulent, even ecstatic, central section quartet, Lauren Pschirrer was joined by Mengjun Chen, Jonathan Powell—who would retire from Smuin after eight years following this performance—and Rex Wheeler. For me, this was the highlight of the program, lushly romantic but disturbing, intense and haunting.
The concert ended with Michael Smuin’s fabulous Fly Me to the Moon, 35 minutes of that great voice in nine of his hit songs, prefaced by an “overture” that nicked recognizable bits into a pastiche. Now the previously black backdrop was sprinkled with stars. A crescent moon was added for “Fly Me to the Moon” (Mengjun Chen, Valerie Harmon, Erica Felsch and Nicole Haskins) and “Moonlight Serenade.” (Erica Felsch and Jonathan Powell.) The company began with “You and the Night and the Music,” the men in trousers and vests and The Chairman’s familiar fedoras, the women in a variety of colors. Lauren Pschirrer and Dustin James then took “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” followed by Erica Chipp-Adams and Oliver-Paul Adams in “The Way You Look Tonight.” The company joined Valerie Harmon and Rex Wheeler for “The Lady is a Tramp,” with Nicole Haskins dancing and Robert Kretz just standing for “I Won’t Dance.”
Michael Smuin, dancer, choreographer and entertainer, always loved to surprise his audiences, and there is plenty of such tweaking here—provoking laughter along the way—but his classical training remains the bedrock of his work.
Robert Kretz soloed in “That’s Life,” and the company rounded out the pageant with “New York, New York.” Did I mention the enthusiasm of the audience? It went bananas!
*The entire dance world was shocked by the sudden death of Michael Smuin in 2007 from an apparent heart attack at the age of 68.