Smuin Dance Series 02

By Scott MacClelland

SEVERAL SANTA CRUZ dance lovers were in attendance at Sunset Center on Sunday for Smuin Ballet’s season finale, Dance Series 2, consisting of three works. It began with Falling Up, choreographed for eight dancers by Amy Seiwert—who is leaving Smuin to lead Sacramento Ballet starting next season—that premiered in 2007, to a series of short piano pieces by Brahms.

If I Were a Sushi Roll, to songs from the album Confessions—words by Teitur Lassen and music by Nico Muhly—got its world premiere during this just-ended tour. Its choreographer is Val Caniparoli, whose Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino (Everything but the kitchen sink) was premiered by Smuin in 2014 and revived in 2016. (Both of these half-hour Caniparoli works are laugh-out-loud funny.)

The 2016 tour also premiered Helen Pickett’s Oasis, (top of page) which was revived to conclude the program of last weekend in Carmel. Of the three works, this was the most ecstatic and climactic, with a fabulous orchestral score by Jeff Beal and dazzling set design and costumes by Emma Kingsbury.

At 21 minutes, Falling Up (right) is a largely formal piece, using five Brahms intermezzos. Lighter shades of neutral colored dresses for the four women (in pointe shoes) were set against dark trousers and slightly lighter long-sleeve pullovers for the men. The up-tempo second Brahms piece imparted a note of joy to the dancers, but otherwise the work unfolds its choreography in coolly abstract terms. Mostly danced by pairs, one vivid scene configured one woman with three men, and the opposite. Seiwert’s original fingerprints are easily recognizable, like her spinning en pointe and graceful leaning poses. 

Sushi Roll used the full company of 15 dancers, the men in black suits with ties and white shirts, the women in black dresses, all in soft shoes. The gestures and poses were nearly always whimsical and often comical. But it required a great deal of discipline and coordination to keep everything clear. The song titles were inspired by YouTube expressions of “hope, longing, regret, failure and resolve.” Caniparoli took his title from “If I were a sushi roll traversing through a Japanese kitchen, I would be mostly fascinated by the people there.” The words to the songs were just as goofy as they were danced to. Muhly, a rising star of opera and other new music, used a goodly number of musicians in creating some cheeky new sounds, often using Philip Glass-style minimalism. The song titles included “Sick of Fish,” “Coffee Expert,” “Her First Confession,” “Dog and Frog” and “Printer in the Morning”. The opening “Describe You”, with the full ensemble, had the audience giggling all the way through then plain-out laughing at its conclusion. Various props were added to underscore the sense of silly texts. As with most of Smuin’s repertory, large ensembles break into duos, trios  and solos. Mengjun Chen had a large solo in front of the ensemble in “Nowheresville.” Erica Chipp-Adams took a solo for “Printer in the Morning.” Maxwell Simoes, now only in flesh-tone tights, danced the virtuosic final solo in “Small Spaces.”

Pickett’s Oasis is about water, or the lack of it. The hanging string curtains, forward on each side to the stage, farther back in the middle, gave an added sense of depth to the tableau. Computer-generated projections amplified the effect, as did the theatrical lighting by Nicholas Rayment and Michael Oesch. Solos were danced before several of the corps who sat on the stage as if an extension of the audience. The 25-minute piece builds in intensity from beginning to end. Beal’s opulent score could succeed as a stand-alone concert work. Smuin artistic director Celia Fushille told me “Oasis was originally created for 14 dancers. Helen Pickett tightened it for 10 dancers and had the sections more focused. An earlier solo she turned into the now expanded solo and some of the minor entrances for dancers on the sides were removed to draw the focus to the soloists.”

At the end of the performance, Fushille took the stage, promising another Smuin season beginning in the fall, and also to extend well-wishes to dancers Dustin James, Rex Wheeler, Erica Chipp-Adams and Oliver Adams who are leaving the company. “Rex will still return as a choreographer next year on our Dance Series 1,” she added.

All photos by Chris Hardy.




Smuin Dance Series 01

Smuin_Serenade-for-Strings-3_Keith-Sutter (1)

By Scott MacClelland

OF ALL THE AUDIENCES I regularly join at Sunset Center, none displays more enthusiasm than the one for Smuin Dance. The company’s appearance on Saturday afternoon, the last in its Dance Series 01 tour this season, dazzled—they always get that adjective from me—in a program that ranged from the sublime to the silly, from the mischievous choreography by Garrett Ammon of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, to a ritualistic and ecstatic work by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa of a movement from Schubert’s String Quintet in C, to Michael Smuin’s evergreen Fly Me to the Moon, a Frank Sinatra homage first staged in 2004.*

The company of ten dancers opened Serenade for Strings in off-white pale colors—the men wore dark trousers—lit from the wings. (Above photo by Keith Sutter.) The piece entered Smuin’s repertoire in 2014, having been premiered the year before at Wonderbound in Denver. There was whimsy throughout, with small provocative gestures of hands and feet among a whole kit of clever bits. (Men lying supine on the stage upskirting the embarrassed women was a new one on me.) Tchaikovsky’s piece is in four movements, the first, in the form of a sonatina, beginning and ending with a formal striding bit that is recalled at the end for the last movement as well. For that, Ammon has his dancers assume a more ceremonial style. Otherwise its fun and games. In the third movement, Elegy, he inserts elements from classical ballet. The finale, Tema russo, runs with riotous good cheer. Featured pairs were Erica Felsch and Robert Kretz, Erica Chipp-Adams and Mengjun Chen, Valerie Harmon and Dustin James, Terez Dean and Rex Wheeler.

Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for A Rose premiered in 2009 at Pennsylvania Ballet. See her lucid backstory in preparation for Smuin’s production.







The piece opened with Erica Felsch as the solo Venus, in white with a red rose clenched in her teeth, and subtle clouds of fog in the air above the stage. Heavy percussive pulsing sound effects provided accompaniment. Soon she was joined by 12 dancers, all in rose-red kilts, the men bare-chested, the women in skin-colored tops, for a sequence of four duets and one quartet. The almost-religious long slow Adagio from Schubert’s Quintet inspired a ritualistic character to the dance. Key lights were used to enhance the dance pairs Valerie Harmon and Oliver-Paul Adams, Terez Dean and Dustin James, Erica Chipp-Adams and Robert Kretz, and Nicole Haskins and Ben Needham-Wood. For the highly turbulent, even ecstatic, central section quartet, Lauren Pschirrer was joined by Mengjun Chen, Jonathan Powell—who would retire from Smuin after eight years following this performance—and Rex Wheeler. For me, this was the highlight of the program, lushly romantic but disturbing, intense and haunting.

The concert ended with Michael Smuin’s fabulous Fly Me to the Moon, 35 minutes of that great voice in nine of his hit songs, prefaced by an “overture” that nicked recognizable bits into a pastiche. Now the previously black backdrop was sprinkled with stars. A crescent moon was added for “Fly Me to the Moon” (Mengjun Chen, Valerie Harmon, Erica Felsch and Nicole Haskins) and “Moonlight Serenade.” (Erica Felsch and Jonathan Powell.) The company began with “You and the Night and the Music,” the men in trousers and vests and The Chairman’s familiar fedoras, the women in a variety of colors. Lauren Pschirrer and Dustin James then took “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” followed by Erica Chipp-Adams and Oliver-Paul Adams in “The Way You Look Tonight.” The company joined Valerie Harmon and Rex Wheeler for “The Lady is a Tramp,” with Nicole Haskins dancing and Robert Kretz just standing for “I Won’t Dance.”

Michael Smuin, dancer, choreographer and entertainer, always loved to surprise his audiences, and there is plenty of such tweaking here—provoking laughter along the way—but his classical training remains the bedrock of his work.

Robert Kretz soloed in “That’s Life,” and the company rounded out the pageant with “New York, New York.” Did I mention the enthusiasm of the audience? It went bananas!

*The entire dance world was shocked by the sudden death of Michael Smuin in 2007 from an apparent heart attack at the age of 68.