Smuin, Jun 3

Smuin-The Poetry of Being 1_Keith Sutter

By Scott MacClelland

CELIA FUSHILLE, Smuin Ballet’s artistic director, welcomed a near sellout Saturday matinee at Sunset Center promising that Smuin (their official new name) would return for its regular three appearances in Carmel with autumn, holiday and spring programs in its next season. She told me privately that she had to “stop the presses” on next season’s brochure at the last minute because Sunset’s commitment to her company’s program next June had been held hostage to Sunset’s scheduling until the last minute.

It’s a good thing Sunset management came through. Longtime Monterey Peninsula Smuin fans pony up a disproportionate amount of contributed income, in five and six-figures, every year, many of whom also support Sunset Center directly. Not nice to bite the hand that feeds.

This show sandwiched Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open, a reprise of last March’s debut appearance here, between two world premieres. The program opened with Nicole Haskins’ The Poetry of Being. Haskins is a longtime veteran of Smuin, both as dancer and choreographer, with a national reputation. She chose the first two movements from Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of Florence” string sextet, the bracing Allegro con spirit and the more circumspect Adagio cantabile e con moto. Costumer Susan Roemer dressed her dancers in bright azure (see above) with light tan tops for the men, and a single couple in off-white seen for one brief moment at the start. Haskins deployed her abstract choreographic designs against a dimly lit, off-white backdrop while keeping the focus on the vivid blue color in motion and poses. Naturally, she divided her ten dancers into smaller groupings and paired duos which added sexual tension to the corps’ rank and file. She achieved dizzying effects using the full company in layers of motion across the stage. She also added assisted slides for the women, all in pointe shoes. Then, as the first movement elided into the second, the couple in white—Erica Felsch and Robert Kretz—reappeared for an extended pas de deux before being rejoined by their colleagues, now with added color schemes. This is Haskins’ first major work for Smuin—she has contributed to the annual Christmas program—and displayed a masterful range of styles and techniques. I am curious to see what she would do with a narrative concept.

What a treat for Smuin to bring back Broken Open. In Seiwert, the company’s choreographer-in-residence, they have a real gem and, in this piece, a crown jewel. Its six movements are taken from music for strings by cellist/composer Julia Kent (whose music includes a growing discography and the score for the documentary, The Boxing Girls of Kabul.) The revival made no changes to the original—including its swimsuit costumes, lighting and dark backdrop—though Fushille commented to me on the differences between the original cast of dancers and this one that included five new dancers, differences I confess that were too subtle for me to fully recognize.

The performance featured Lauren Pschirrer, a well-chosen star from an ensemble of 16 that enjoys an abundance of outstanding solo artists, not least Rex Wheeler who stood out in the final movement. The piece builds across an arc of 25 minutes, getting more intense as it goes and culminating in a breathtaking tour de force finale. (Just before the finale, Pschirrer and Dustin James danced a duo that was totally and brilliantly in the zone.) My creaky old body craved to set foot on the stage, but, as the late, great jazz pianist George Shearing remarked after hearing Vladimir Ashkenazy play, “He doesn’t inspire me. He frustrates me.” If frustration gives pleasure, count me in. As for the finale, a couple of people heading up the aisle for the intermission remarked their amazement of it, one saying out, “How do they do it?” How indeed? In my review after the performance last March, I quoted Seiwert quoting Neil Gaiman in his way of explaining/complaining about the creative process, “It 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.” In this case, let’s keep it that way.

Smuin-Be Here Now 4_Keith Sutter

Be Here Now (pictured) was the other premiere, a celebration of the ‘The Summer of Love,’ choreographed by veteran Trey McIntyre, who is as well-known for his photography and filmmaking. The most frustrating thing about the piece, as McIntyre himself complained in a recent newspaper interview, was not being able to gain permission to use the pop and folksongs of the Vietnam/hippy era he had originally envisioned. Meanwhile, this half-hour work was the only one to use video and props. It opened with film of 1944-45 nuclear bombs exploding and early protests against the war. By and by a scrim rose to exchange mushroom clouds for an ice cream cone. The rest was a pastiche of pop songs of the era, by the Mamas and the Papas, Florence Reece, Janice Joplin, Grace Slick, The Hollies, Chet Powers and We Five, with various projections of spinning psychedelic spirals. Costumes were street clothes revealing plenty of skin. A replica Michelin Man image was projected, then took the stage in a hilarious big-as-life inflated version that bounced around the stupefied corps until it ignominiously deflated right there in front of God and everybody. Some wild ‘grape clusters’ festooned the nonsense. The show ended with rose petals, spinning ‘insects’ and glitter falling from high upon dancers and audience alike. Not a piece for the ages, but certainly a moment in its time.

Photos be Keith Sutter

Smuin’s Dance Series 01

Smuin_Indigo1_Chris Hardy

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.