Smuin Ballet, June 11

Smuin_Oasis_6_Keith SutterPhoto by Keith Sutter

By Scott MacClelland

SOME OF THE AUDIENCE for Smuin Ballet’s Dance Series Two were not happy about the shrill whistling from others nearby after the danced episodes. But at least that whistling was enthusiastic, and deserved in spirit, during the company’s Saturday matinee at Sunset Center.

Three ambitious works filled the program, the first a reprise of Val Caniparoli’s 30-minute Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino (Everything but the kitchen sink) that Smuin toured to Carmel two seasons ago. The world premiere production of Helen Pickett’s Oasis, nearly as long and the only one with scenery, closed the show. They sandwiched Return to a Strange Land by Jiří Kylián, a memorial homage to the legendary John Cranko, who vaulted the Stuttgart Ballet into a pioneering world-class company and who was cut down at age 45 by an allergic reaction to a sleeping pill on a transatlantic air flight following a successful US tour.

The first piece is full of whimsy and set to four violin concertos and one sinfonia by Vivaldi—each so rarely performed that they all sounded new. The 13 members, attired in shades of green and dancing on white vinyl, opened and closed the set and appeared between the many divisions in twos and threes that constituted most of the work. Cleverly, Caniparoli echoed in the choreography every little throw-away gesture in the music. For one bit—actually an extended transitional modulation—he selected the six men of the company into now-coherent, now-incoherent ensemble that barked and wept as the music couldn’t seem to decide where it was going. There were moments of clownish mugging, hints of romance and a startling bit of Irish step dancing. Resolutions took form in symmetries and abstract patterns. Michael Oesch’s effective lighting stood in for scenery.

Oesch adapted the 2006 lighting design of Kees Tjebbers, itself a revision of the original, generally dark, by Kylián who had also designed the set and costumes for Return to a Strange Land. Kylián selected piano pieces by Leoš Janáček. The first and fourth dance movements called for three dancers each, while the second and third were duets. Darkness included the now- black floor while the spare costumes favored muted blues and tans. The music was circumspect and the dance uniquely stylish, expressive and personal. At its conclusion, the exquisite finale posed the two men and one woman—Robert Moore, Dustin James and Erica Felsch—in a magically balanced sculpture. In his note, Kylián said the work has a “transcendental meaning”—along with the other members of Cranko’s company he was returning to what, without their leader, would inevitably be a strange land.

The second intermission was longer than the first because, at last, a real set with spectacular, undulating string curtains (see Keith Sutter’s photo above) and costumes, both by Emma Kingsbury, and a full-out lighting design by Nicholas Rayment required extra setup time. The string curtains allowed the dancers to move through them as if they were passing through walls. Or rather waterfalls. Pickett was inspired by Jessica Yu’s documentary Last Call at the Oasis which made the urgent case for water. Yu commissioned a musical score by Jeff Beal and Pickett recycled it—like water itself—for her choreography. (Various images of water were projected onto the string curtains and lighting was designed in complement.)

All 14 members of the company participated in sometimes dizzying display of ensemble energy and design, and whimsy. It was all celebration. Duos and trios and quartets appeared amidst the general hustle-bustle. Lifts and carries countered the horizontality of the stage with vertical thrusts. In one moment, a couple danced in a small pool of white light while the rest of the dancers sat in shade to observe them. A strong yellow flood from the wings cast a dramatic shadow of the two obliquely onto the string curtain.

Annoying whistling aside, the cheers and standing ovation lasted long until artistic director Celia Fushille took the stage to point out and honor three Smuin dancers who are moving on. She also promised that Smuin Ballet will return to Carmel for its 23rd season in the fall.



Smuin Ballet, March 26

Amy Seiwert head shot 2011 by andreaBy Scott MacClelland

SMUIN BALLET’S Dance Series One, seen Saturday afternoon in Carmel, promised dance about dance. You could accurately infer from the program title that no narrative stories or dramatic scenarios would be represented in the four works on the Sunset Center stage. A purely abstract choreographic entertainment won the approval of the large audience. The most ambitious of them, Ma Cong’s whimsical French Twist and Amy Seiwert’s collaborative Broken Open, framed the program that surrounded two shorter pieces. Michael Smuin’s Bouquet and Ben Needham-Wood’s Maslow, which, like the Seiwart, was world-premiered by the company in September of 2015. Needham-Wood joined Smuin in 2013 and has created several dances that have appeared in Carmel. Likewise, Seiwart who today is Smuin’s Choreographer in Residence and enjoys a national reputation and following.

At twenty minutes, French Twist consisted of five vignettes to nonsensical words and cheeky music by Hugues Le Bars (1950-2014), taken from various sources. The texts are in French, more or less, and become a patter within the musical patterns. The piece was premiered by Smuin as a complete work in 2010. The company of eight dancers were deployed in different combinations, large for the first and fourth movements and finale, with two couples in the second movement and a trio in the third, and with lighting effects in place of sets. (This would be true throughout the program.) At one point, two nesting chairs briefly became props. Ma’s choreography, more charmed than laugh-out-loud, was relatively restrained in terms of the more intense music.

Smuin’s Bouquet put the slow movement from Shostakovich’s two piano concertos back to back, the first for three men and one woman, the second a pas de deux. Both concerto movements are circumspect and soulful, the first recalling that the work also features extensive solo trumpet parts. The second, with haunting unforgettable themes, would make some believe the composer was channeling Mozart. (It was composed in 1957.) Danced seductively by Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood, it lifted the level of audience enthusiasm. This revival also underscored Michael Smuin’s classical balletic background and illustrated his talent for adding uniquely surprising animation to his dancer’s moves.

Though only eight minutes long, Needham-Wood’s Maslow packed in a lot of action. Inspired by the American psychologist’s views on ‘self-actualization’ and composer Ben Sollee’s music of the same title, some of its bits did get laughs. Dressed in a business suit, Weston Krukow was Maslow, at first occupying a stuffed leather armchair, then engaging in a duet with Erica Felsch, wearing tails. After a pas de deux, she suddenly and magically vanished into thin air. Five more dancers joined in as Professor Maslow appeared to “glimpse inside the mind of man searching for his greatest self,” as Needham-Wood explained in his notes. In that regard, the piece came closest to an external program and was highly symbolic, but dance itself carried it.

Lighting design of the first three works was adapted–or in Maslow was an original—by Michael Oesch.

Seiwert (pictured above) put a quote by Neil Gaiman into her notes complaining that the creative process “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.” This was her way of explaining how Broken Open turned into a collaborative effort. She wrote, “When creating a ballet, I feel I’m watching something unfold that already exists.” She added, “Perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction.” The company of fifteen were fully deployed here, with ensembles that featured solos, duos and trios with the full company. (The fifth movement was a quintet only.) The women wore one-piece swimsuits which looked a little odd with their pointe shoes, but energy and imagination drove the 25-minute, six movement piece. The men wore tops similar to the womens’ costumes, plus leotards. The rich musical score by Julia Kent, from various sources, were all composed for bowed acoustic string instruments—frequently plucked as well—in minimalist patterns. There are plenty of lifts by men of women, and other men. (I don’t recall seeing a woman lift a man here.) While Seiwert always acknowledges the influence of Michael Smuin on her work, she is her own artist who has no shortage of original ideas in her choreographer’s kit. Brian Jones’ lighting was theatrical and glitzy, adding its own energy.

Broken Open got a standing ovation, cheers and whistles. Smuin’s next Carmel performance, in June, is titled Dance Series Two. I’ve already requested my tickets.