SpectorDance Choreographers Showcase

By Scott MacClelland

SPECTORDANCE paraded new dance works by ten choreographers in their Marina studios on the weekend, the summer edition of its Choreographers Showcase series that began in 1997. Overall the tone was serious, the costumes favored black and the music, particularly the synthesized variety, tended to be repetitive and without fixed pitches. For these reasons, You Gon’ Learn Some Jazz Today, created and danced by Cherrie Paghasian, a student at Monterey High and Monterey Peninsula College, with music by Masego, was as glitzy as a Fourth of July sparkler and Paghasian, in bright colors and with an attitude, marked a high point. She got the only laughs on the Sunday afternoon performance.

Another big scorer was Night Revelations by veteran choreographer Margaret Wingrove. The work is a love duet, danced with high polish by Danny Tran (in black) and Mia Glumac (in a rose-colored dress) to Astor Piazzolla’s well-known tango, Adios Nonino. The music is an extended rondo that allowed Wingrove to put the couple through many changes of mood, from affection to rejection.

Fran Spector Atkins and her media specialist Bill Roden created a strange piece, We The People, danced as a solo by Paige Ettin, that began with a recitation of the Preamble to the US Constitution followed by a video of Daniel Roumain playing an electric viola da braccio and a pianist in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” that, though well-played, bore little resemblance to the anthem and, on the big screen robbed attention away from the dancer. (Above photo by William Roden.) But the choreography was clearly the work of Spector Atkins, a sinuous, sometimes serpentine, sometimes knotted example of her talent for translating deep emotions into physical form.

Melissa Kamnikar created and danced A Message for All of Humanity, an earnest plea seeking to answer the tragedies of today with hope. It was accompanied by the recorded voice of Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from his film The Great Dictator.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo by Jonathan Lipow engaged four women dancers to Rebel Heart by First Aid Kit. Each dancer carried a battery-powered candle that provided a focal point on the darkened stage, and made patterns as much with their hands as their dancing. Out, Damned Spot! by Rachel Roman anguished four women dance students in short black sheer dresses over red small clothes, over the grief and guilt of Lady Macbeth, with the ominous Panoramic music of Atticus Ross. The piece ended with a solo.

Volar by Andi Salazar, for six dancers, one male, dealt with the circumstances faced by emigrants seeking to escape, over land or sea, from violence and repression. The dancing included individual as well as group movements, including much writhing on the floor, suggesting trying to stay afloat on water. A Sense of Symmetry by Mackenzie King for dancers Arielin Anderson and Caty Updyke-Brunet delivered the promise of its title, with the dancers physically engaged in a great deal of pushing and pulling.

César Rubio Degollado’s Univrs, for three men and three women, summed up the Showcase to Theatre Man for synthesizer. The choreography was complex with running, solos, duos, trios and other divisions. The ensemble somehow was able to keep its design and patterns intact even as the repetitive, featureless music seemed to provide no cues.

A reflection of the times in which we live, this particular program was unusually dark and of deeply serious inflection.

On a brighter note, Amy Byington, director of the SpectorDance School announced upcoming auditions “open to all dancers” eight and older for a new Spector Atkins work, When You Were Gone, and for a Moscow Ballet production of The Nutcracker for dancers six and older to be performed at the Golden State Theatre in Monterey. SpectorDance.org has the information. Byington also said that SpectorDance’s Ocean Trilogy will be presented at the Bronx Botanical Garden in New York during a climate conference, and that East West, SpectorDance’s gang-violence work will be performed in Stockton, another town similarly blighted.  




Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s 25th

By Scott MacClelland

SMUIN BALLET’S 25th anniversary season ended with a full-house at Sunset Center on Saturday, easily one of the highest points of the 2018-19 live performing arts season. For the occasion, some 75 minutes of late founder Michael Smuin’s choreography proved an embarrassment of riches, a feast for the eyes, equally beautiful and outrageously entertaining. The presentation was mostly excerpted from larger works and afforded the company’s management and staff to share their memories of Smuin and the history of his company in the form of three videos projected on a screen behind the stage. In addition, a six-page spread in the handout booklet presented both a history and a timeline of Smuin himself, from his birth, his many triumphs as a dancer/choreographer with the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet, his astonishing range of work, awards (Emmy and Tony) right up until a heart attack during a rehearsal with his company ended his life in 2007, then to the moment when Celia Fushille stepped into those mighty shoes, the selection of Amy Seiwert as choreographer-in-residence, and the many innovations and premieres since. Yet it was a long time coming since Smuin’s previous Saturday matinee in Carmel was cancelled because of trees that fell across Highway 1 during stormy weather and took out power for the entire city.

The program opened with Seiwert’s new Renaissance, using seven songs from Eastern Europe in recordings by the cherished San Francisco Bay Area’s Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble. By her own explanation, Seiwert encouraged the dancers to be creative while interpreting her designs. Costumes were neutral in color (with one exception) and the 24-minute piece was seen against a dark background and a scenic drop of three bright panels of a palpably woven texture. Otherwise, imaginative lighting stood in for sets and props. (The one exception was the black and white costume for diminutive Erin Yarbrough-Powell, who, along with Valerie Harmon, was one of two featured soloists.) The songs defined the framework for each dance, which used the company in large and small ensembles. Seiwert’s choreographic fingerprints were easy to recognize yet taken together it was plain to see how she has raised her game, which came across with heightened physical energy and integrity. (The photo above, by Chris Hardy, gives Seiwert’s work a very dynamic illustration.) This piece should enjoy a robust life of its own, assuming there are more dance companies with the talent, flair and vision of Smuin and Fushille.

But Smuin’s own work gave Seiwert a real run for her money. It’s nothing less than a gold mine of incredible variety, brilliant imagination and sheer quantity. “At least three hours more” of Smuin’s choreography is vouchsafed in this company, one of the staff told me. Besides the noisy applause and cheers that acknowledged each group—often each individual number—many of the bits provoked unconstrained laughter. (As Fushille said during a Q & A with some audience members before the program, Michael Smuin was as keen for entertainment as for art. She also observed that his work tended away from abstraction and towards narrative. Meanwhile, classical ballet, including pointe shoes, always remains part of the mix.)

The show’s second half, “The Best of Smuin,” began with a standalone barre midstage and a pantomime of figures crossing the background with short bits of popular songs. Audience giggles were already primed. That led to the first set, “Dances With Songs,” individually featuring Valerie Harmon in Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable, Mengjun Chen to Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, Tessa Barbour to Peggy Lee’s Fever (pictured but with Erica Felsch ‘working’ a red chair like a boa constrictor, more or less, photo by Chris Hardy) and Tess Lane and Ben Needham-Wood in Willie Nelson’s Georgia.

Aaron Copland’s Danza de Jalisco riotously inspired Seuños Latinos (Latino Dreams), with a trio featured amidst the company. The mood grew a bit more serious for the classical pieces, with Lauren Pschirrer and Needham-Wood and a piano recording of a JS Bach prelude, three high-energy bits from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana wherein costume changes became a defining element, and the “Alleluia” from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Then three bits titled “Very Merrily, Verdi,” lightened the action, followed by the “Balcony Scene” from Cyrano, a brilliant Smuin spoof to the hauntingly romantic slow movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A in which the two men, wearing long-nosed carnival masks each seek to seduce Roxanne, one the hopeless idiot, the other Cyrano of course. (I don’t know whether Smuin’s or Steve Martin’s came first, but to my ear the only comic part of the music is a short bit where the solo clarinet plays a series of arpeggios that must have tickled Mozart’s funny bone, but was certainly noticed by Smuin. I’m sure I’ll never hear that piece again without being reminded of Michael Smuin, to swap my romantic yearnings for laughter. Damn!)

Speaking of laughter, Rome-born and trained Mattia Pallozzi had the place rolling with it as Frankie and Johnny—both of them tightly stitched into a hilarious solo, man and mannequin. Then came the company for Que Rico Mambo to the high-energy music of Perez Prado.

Finally, “Dancin’ With Gershwin” featured Tess Lane and Peter Kurta with the troupe in Michael Feinstein’s They Can’t Take that Away From Me followed by Do It Again to the voice of Marilyn Monroe with Erica Felsch in a bright red leotard surrounded by the men of the company all sporting large wings of fluttering white feathers, without a doubt the biggest laugh of the afternoon. I wish they had done it again.

The Gershwins’ Shall We Dance brought the whole company on stage for a romping finale bringing the audience to its feet with cheers and whistles that only subsided when Fushille hailed six members of the 14 dancers who are going on to other opportunities. But I would be remiss not to acknowledge the costume designers, lighting designers and the stagehands who continue to fulfill the magic of Smuin Contemporary Ballet. What a perfect end to their 25th season!