Ocean Trilogy


By Scott MacClelland

A LONG TIME IN THE MAKING, Fran Spector’s Ocean Trilogy, a collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, got its first complete outing at Spector’s studio in Marina on the weekend. It fills 40 minutes with videos (shot and curated by Spector media-partner William Roden) interspersed with original choreography, realized by a quartet of female dancers, and original rap lyrics and rhymes by Baba Brinkman. The program began with Cascading Failures, choreographed by guest artist Tracy Kofford and danced by a company of 16. Between it and Ocean Trilogy, Brinkman performed excerpts from his own “Rap Guide to Climate Chaos.” The program’s second half saw a reprise of East West, Spector’s powerful 50-minute work on gangs, gang-violence and the consequences that have so tragically impacted Monterey County.

Ocean Trilogy needs further editing. Of the three components mentioned above, none gives the piece the impact it wants and needs overall. Instead, it comes across as a string of pearls, vignettes that flatter one another but remain stubbornly in their own domains. Brinkman, who was/is also a major collaborator in East West, conveys ideas and perspectives on issues of major—in this case global—significance in a highly coherent, sparkling way, often running ahead while the last provocative thought is still being digested. The footage of MBARI scientists, notwithstanding a few short zingers, tends to bog down the pace with earnest appeals that beat upon the same drum over and over. The dance, executed by the quartet, wearing leotards of bright blue, dark blue, plum and emerald green with long yards of matching chiffon, represented the ocean in all its colors and turbulence—to my taste the best part of the show. There should have been more of it and, indeed, the real spine of the piece. All the rest would better be relegated to drop-in commentary.

By contrast, East West’s great success is its narrative arc, setting a context, then, by stages, playing out programmatically the contextual allure of gang culture, the choices it demands, its ‘rite of passage’ violence, its code of silence and loyalty, its devastation on families and friends, its brutal prison realities and, ultimately, its path of redemption. One could convincingly argue that such a passage is idealistic, “dramatic” in artificial terms. But who among us is so cynical that we cannot respond to hope in the face of hopelessness?

Credit here must equally go to the cast that created this masterpiece: dancer/athletes Jones Welsh Talmadge, Anne-Marie Talmadge, Donte Essien and Colton Sterling.

The music and sounds that accompanied these performances were from a variety of sources, none by itself either a motivating force or a standout presence per se, not unlike much of today’s movie music.

Cascading Failures, inspired by the 1964 Paul Harvey doomsday “If I Were the Devil” warning to America that has certainly come to full bloom in the Trump administration, made a vivid impression, even if its vocabulary of ‘rank and file’ and duos against ensemble was conventionally familiar. Yet I found it quite moving and look forward to seeing more of Kofford’s work

Smuin, Jun 3

Smuin-The Poetry of Being 1_Keith Sutter

By Scott MacClelland

CELIA FUSHILLE, Smuin Ballet’s artistic director, welcomed a near sellout Saturday matinee at Sunset Center promising that Smuin (their official new name) would return for its regular three appearances in Carmel with autumn, holiday and spring programs in its next season. She told me privately that she had to “stop the presses” on next season’s brochure at the last minute because Sunset’s commitment to her company’s program next June had been held hostage to Sunset’s scheduling until the last minute.

It’s a good thing Sunset management came through. Longtime Monterey Peninsula Smuin fans pony up a disproportionate amount of contributed income, in five and six-figures, every year, many of whom also support Sunset Center directly. Not nice to bite the hand that feeds.

This show sandwiched Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open, a reprise of last March’s debut appearance here, between two world premieres. The program opened with Nicole Haskins’ The Poetry of Being. Haskins is a longtime veteran of Smuin, both as dancer and choreographer, with a national reputation. She chose the first two movements from Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of Florence” string sextet, the bracing Allegro con spirit and the more circumspect Adagio cantabile e con moto. Costumer Susan Roemer dressed her dancers in bright azure (see above) with light tan tops for the men, and a single couple in off-white seen for one brief moment at the start. Haskins deployed her abstract choreographic designs against a dimly lit, off-white backdrop while keeping the focus on the vivid blue color in motion and poses. Naturally, she divided her ten dancers into smaller groupings and paired duos which added sexual tension to the corps’ rank and file. She achieved dizzying effects using the full company in layers of motion across the stage. She also added assisted slides for the women, all in pointe shoes. Then, as the first movement elided into the second, the couple in white—Erica Felsch and Robert Kretz—reappeared for an extended pas de deux before being rejoined by their colleagues, now with added color schemes. This is Haskins’ first major work for Smuin—she has contributed to the annual Christmas program—and displayed a masterful range of styles and techniques. I am curious to see what she would do with a narrative concept.

What a treat for Smuin to bring back Broken Open. In Seiwert, the company’s choreographer-in-residence, they have a real gem and, in this piece, a crown jewel. Its six movements are taken from music for strings by cellist/composer Julia Kent (whose music includes a growing discography and the score for the documentary, The Boxing Girls of Kabul.) The revival made no changes to the original—including its swimsuit costumes, lighting and dark backdrop—though Fushille commented to me on the differences between the original cast of dancers and this one that included five new dancers, differences I confess that were too subtle for me to fully recognize.

The performance featured Lauren Pschirrer, a well-chosen star from an ensemble of 16 that enjoys an abundance of outstanding solo artists, not least Rex Wheeler who stood out in the final movement. The piece builds across an arc of 25 minutes, getting more intense as it goes and culminating in a breathtaking tour de force finale. (Just before the finale, Pschirrer and Dustin James danced a duo that was totally and brilliantly in the zone.) My creaky old body craved to set foot on the stage, but, as the late, great jazz pianist George Shearing remarked after hearing Vladimir Ashkenazy play, “He doesn’t inspire me. He frustrates me.” If frustration gives pleasure, count me in. As for the finale, a couple of people heading up the aisle for the intermission remarked their amazement of it, one saying out, “How do they do it?” How indeed? In my review after the performance last March, I quoted Seiwert quoting Neil Gaiman in his way of explaining/complaining about the creative process, “It was like trying to hold fine sand: every time I thought I’d got hold of it, it would trickle through my fingers and vanish.” In this case, let’s keep it that way.

Smuin-Be Here Now 4_Keith Sutter

Be Here Now (pictured) was the other premiere, a celebration of the ‘The Summer of Love,’ choreographed by veteran Trey McIntyre, who is as well-known for his photography and filmmaking. The most frustrating thing about the piece, as McIntyre himself complained in a recent newspaper interview, was not being able to gain permission to use the pop and folksongs of the Vietnam/hippy era he had originally envisioned. Meanwhile, this half-hour work was the only one to use video and props. It opened with film of 1944-45 nuclear bombs exploding and early protests against the war. By and by a scrim rose to exchange mushroom clouds for an ice cream cone. The rest was a pastiche of pop songs of the era, by the Mamas and the Papas, Florence Reece, Janice Joplin, Grace Slick, The Hollies, Chet Powers and We Five, with various projections of spinning psychedelic spirals. Costumes were street clothes revealing plenty of skin. A replica Michelin Man image was projected, then took the stage in a hilarious big-as-life inflated version that bounced around the stupefied corps until it ignominiously deflated right there in front of God and everybody. Some wild ‘grape clusters’ festooned the nonsense. The show ended with rose petals, spinning ‘insects’ and glitter falling from high upon dancers and audience alike. Not a piece for the ages, but certainly a moment in its time.

Photos be Keith Sutter