A Smuin Ballet Christmas


By Scott MacClelland

SMUIN BALLET FANS don’t usually expect premieres in its annual Christmas Ballet at Sunset Center in Carmel. Those are usually reserved for Smuin’s other two annual appearances here, in March and June. Nevertheless, they got four of them, one in the first act “Classical Christmas” and three in the second “Cool Christmas.” This production packed 15 numbers into Act I and 13 in Act II, a dizzyingly-paced parade of riotous ensembles, solos, duos and full 16-member company spectacles. At that rate, costume and scene changes were barely possible. The Act I set consisted of tall hanging curtains, cinched at the waste, with variations only done with lighting. Like them, costumes were all in shades of white. In Act II, vivid reds with touches of black took over, as did the set, plus some mostly amusing props.

The Classical Christmas used a variety of familiar Christmas music, some JS Bach, “For unto us a child is born” from Handel’s Messiah, old and traditional seasonal songs from Europe, a bit from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, Nana Mouskouri singing Schubert’s Ave Maria and Placido Domingo in La Virgen Lava Pañales. Erin Yarbrough-Powell and her husband Jonathan duoed to choreographer Amy Seiwert’s Noel nouvelet, an old French Christmas song sung unaccompanied. Especially delicate were the women of the company in Veni, veni Emanuel. Dancer/choreographer Rex Wheeler’s We Three Kings, a world premiere, was danced by three couples. (See photo above.) The company used Irish stepdance, all action from the waist down, for the Gloucestershire Wassail. Nicole Haskins soloed in the Hanukkah ‘Candle Blessing’ then was joined by the men of the company in ‘Sleep Well,’ a witty flirtation that provoked giggles in the audience. The entire company ended the set with Haskins’ own design for Joy to the World.

Cool Christmas began with the voice of The Jackson 5—with a boy soprano named Michael—in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Following immediately, the voice of Louis Armstrong singing Christmas in New Orleans, the company now costumed, hatted and strutting in style. Then came the predictably popular and funny Santa Baby, to the unique voice of Eartha Kitt, with glittery red Erica Felsch dragging her 30-foot feather boa across the stage, and being rolled, crowd surfing-style, atop the men of the company, all in black overcoats and hats. (This seems to be the one number that reappears every year, and amen to that!) Leon Redbone’s Christmas Island got lots of laughs when Erica Felsch, Lauren Pschirrer, Nicole Haskins and Terez Dean, danced the hula and Rex Wheeler struggled to stay atop a surfboard, while ocean waves swelled and a shark fin scared one of the women into Wheeler’s arms. Back to Ireland for Michael Wells delivering a big tap solo to Bells of Dublin, only to be joined by five of his colleagues, also in tap, for Belles of Blackville Reel.

Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood danced the world premiere of Amy Seiwert’s River, smuin-christmas-ballet-2016-6-j-i-n-g-l-e-bells_keith-sutterdesigned to go with Joni Mitchell’s haunting, lonely Christmas ballad. Nicole Haskins’ J-i-n-g-l-e Bells (see photo, right) was another world premiere, as was the the final number, to The Drifters’ White Christmas, Ben Needham-Wood’s update of Michael Smuin’s original, with snow floating down on the stage and the audience, up through row M.

As usual, Sunset Center was sold out for the Smuin holiday favorite, which was only enhanced by the inclusion of new choreography by Seiwert and members of the company. I’m still picking bits of snow off my sweater.

Photos by Keith Sutter

Choreographer’s Showcase, July 31

By Scott MacClellandSpector

A NEW BATCH of choreography, some of it wonderfully clear of message, went on display over the weekend at SpectorDance in Marina. The Sunday matinee, which I attended, included two works not seen the previous evening. The first was Yun, a solo creation danced without music by Yao Dang, originally from Beijing but now a Californian. Here, she was in constant fluid motion, slowing her pace rarely to allow the audience to absorb her personal intensity. By way of form, she singled out a few gestures for repetition. The second, Tale of a Hummingbird, described as a preview, was of equally high energy. It too was danced by its choreographer, Angela Dice Nguyen, plus Stephen DiBiase and Dalmacio Payomo. Calisthenics, including fast running and other physical working out took the breath away. At times the dancing was solo, then duos and ensemble. At one moment, Nguyen stood motionless but fluttering her hands like a hovering hummingbird. Otherwise, the “Tale” was not clearly communicated.

The program opened with Beneath the Stories We Wear by Claire Calalo of For Change Dance Collective. Hat props gave the small ensemble—a smaller number than announced in the program handout—their organizing touchstones. Calalo danced among them but there was no bio about her. Music by Joseph Colombo included a song sung in Spanish. Calalo deployed her material between mostly duos and the full ensemble. You had to take it as individually personal work to pin down the narrative thread.

In January, Terronique Brown brought her company to Marina for No Man, a serious work inspired by the famous John Donne poem. For this program she presented four women from her LIV Dance Collective in an angry piece called Speechless (spelled with symbols as in a dictionary pronunciation guide.) The quartet in black costume, appeared in geometric formation in a pool of white light, heads turned down and one arm pointing straight up. Soon it became obvious their mouths had been taped shut. The ‘music’ was unintelligible recorded whispering but not before the women stripped off the tape and began muttering phrases to one another, like ‘carry it with me’ and ‘again and again.’ These were accusations and confrontations with dance underscoring the theme. If anything, dance seemed to take a secondary role here. At last the four faced the audience up close and shouted “Who speaks for you?”

With a background in classical ballet, Robert Burns Lowman partnered with Alexis Leigh Krup in Patient, a tender loving scene of the two wearing hospital gowns. Sleeves and then the gowns themselves came off revealing costumes depicting the layer of muscle beneath the skin, as if the pair had suffered worse than third-degree burns all over. The juxtaposition of the gruesome and of mutual caring, performed with such elegance, left an indelible impression.

Comedy, much of it laugh-out-loud, followed tragedy in Omnination by Elton Domingue and Anthony Ellis, one dressed all in black, the other all in white, with matching hats. Hip-hop and R&B provided the music and flashes of ‘lightning’ gave this duo the ‘set’ for their mirror-imaging, ‘pounding’ and ‘reinflating’ each other, break dancing, pantomime and other shtick. Bravo!

These first four numbers all lasted about ten minutes. Four student members of SpectorDance, girls aged 10 to 13 (the youngest and oldest, sisters) danced Jade Clayton’s Divertimento to the first movement of Mozart’s Serenade K136. Five girls later danced Hide and Seek by Marika Brussel to waltzing music in ¾ time. The Goren sisters, Rachel and Becca—I wrongly thought they were twins—danced to Rachel’s No Need to Say Goodbye, and the song Call by Regina Spektor. They, and other SpectorDance girls appeared in a reprise presentation of Fran Spector’s own Degas’s Rainbow, the longest piece of the afternoon, inspired by the paintings and sculptures of dancers by the great French artist, a real celebration.

The second half of the program opened with a short film, Story of Two, designed and danced by Jee Eun Ahn and Traci Klein, to moaning music, Camino, by Murcof. Paper figured prominently here, wrapping and unwrapping the dancers who memorably seemed to be pushed and pulled by invisible forces. An excerpt from Deborah Slater’s Line of Beauty was danced by Anna Greenberg and Derek Harris. She brashly took the entire first part to Lori B’s ribald waltz song Welcome to My Planet. He then expressed great pain and anguish to a keyboard invention by JS Bach. In the third part, to music of Fred Frith, his suffering aroused sympathy in her and the two danced together.

In my view, the best work of the day was Nested Memories by Rachel Lopez, in collaboration with her dancers, who were heard in a recording recalling their earliest memories. As the lights came up all eleven dancers were seen woven into a nest. As one of the recorded voices stood out, its dancer stood up in the nest. As the nest got looser some were singled out for cameos and solos. Only two of the company on stage were men and they indeed got lengthy solos. This was this one of most coherent choreographic designs I have seen, its narrative always clear and strong, and the music a perfect complement: Playground by Andy Smith, Tragos Amargos by Ramon Ayala, and an old Russian lullaby sung by a solo female voice.

Photo: Fran Spector Atkins (sixth from right) introduces her guest choreographers