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.