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.