Stanton Welch’s Indigo. Photo by Chris Hardy
By Scott MacClelland
IF YOU DIDN’T SEE Smuin Ballet’s Dance Series 01at Sunset Center on the weekend, this video will show you samples of Smuin’s current program on tour to venues throughout the SF Bay Area. Carmel has long been included, no doubt in part owing to the more than $20,000 contributed annually to the company by Monterey-area dance fans and benefactors.
Company dancer Celia Fushille, who took over leadership of Smuin Ballet in 2007 after the sudden death from a heart attack ten years ago of founder Michael Smuin, at age 68, has done a masterful job vouchsafing Smuin’s distinctive vision, preserving his legacy and dynamically growing the company with increasing talent at every artistic level.
Yet Sunday’s matinee filled only about two-thirds of Sunset Center. I spoke with Fushille briefly about that and she gave a defense of Smuin’s work that stressed what makes the company much more than an exemplar of classical ballet. As a longtime fan of Smuin Ballet I thought that was an odd response, since classical ballet is proportionate in its repertoire, on equal measure to its modern dance, its whimsy, and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and other unique choreographic kit. (I can’t recall a Smuin program that didn’t include a handful of laugh-out-loud bits any more than I can remember being similarly provoked by other ‘classical’ companies’ productions.)
That also means presenting the work of other like-minded choreographers, including, in this program, Stanton Welch of the Houston Ballet and Garrett Ammon of Wonderbound in Denver. The former was represented by the West Coast premiere of the whimsical Indigo, with eight members of the company dancing to two back-to-back Vivaldi cello concertos, and the latter by the comedic Madness, Rack and Honey, with ten dancers cavorting to all three movements of Mozart’s Violin/Viola Sinfonia Concertante. These works sandwiched a revival of Michael Smuin’s solemn Stabat Mater to the opening movement of the oratorio of that name by Antonín Dvořák.
As you would imagine, Indigo is costumed in shades of blue. Four women opened the 20-minute work in pools of downlight. The four men occupied the same position at the end. The piece began with formalized patterns that increasingly gave way to less confined and more fantastical combinations and motifs. As with virtually all Vivaldi concertos, the slower middle movements were framed by brisk, up-temp movements that gave the dancers plenty of inherent energy and animation. Likewise, as the music moved in for close-ups the number of dancers on stage was pared back, usually to a single couple. This allowed for plenty of variety. Aside from downlights and key lights, operated from high above the audience, the stage was darkly lit; as dancers, men in leotards and women in scanty lingerie-style costumes with long skirts from the waist, front and back, were able to appear and disappear at the dark curtain at the back of the set.
Key lights were again used for Stabat Mater, premiered by Smuin’s company in 2002. The costumes were dusky, yellow and blue, with the ‘title’ character in red, all accented by black straps and stripes. (See the video.) Erin Yarbrough-Powell was that character. Her partner was Ben Needham-Wood. Their interaction was, in effect, a romantic one, though the actual subject matter is the crucified Christ. As Smuin’s own choreography goes, this was more ritualized than much of his work, and called on the use of gestural motifs that almost told a narrative story. Lasting 20 minutes, it’s a beautiful piece that was movingly presented.
Among Mozart masterpieces, the Sinfonia Concertante absolutely invites comedy. The interplay between the feminine violin and the masculine viola is pure seduction, especially in the slower second movement. Ammon gave the movements his own names: “For the poets,” “For my love” and “For the dancers.” Tessa Barbour, Erica Chipp, Terez Dean, Erica Felsch and Valerie Harmon joined the men, Dustin James, Ben Needham-Wood, Jonathan Powell, Benjamin Warner and Michael Wells, to carry the first. Erica Felsch and Benjamin Warner were the ‘lovers’ and the whole company of ten danced the final rondo.
From the get-go it was all comedy, the women costumed in flouncy skirts with oddball tails, the men in suspenders, vests, dark trousers, and natty hats which became the goofy props throughout. No pointe shoes or key light here. Lighting came down from above or across from the wings. So clever Ammon’s designs, and so irresistible Mozart’s music that the 28-minute performance flew by, and, of course, got the biggest audience guffaws. I hope Smuin brings it back sooner than later
Fushille and Smuin Ballet will return to Carmel for Dance Series 02, including two world premieres, on the first weekend in June.