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.


Choreographer’s Showcase

By Scott MacClelland

SPECTORDANCE hosted another ambitious Choreographer’s Showcase on the weekend at their studios in Marina. Eleven choreographers from all over California and one from Berlin presented their work. Several also danced in them.

In traditional fashion, and now in its 20th season, Fran Spector asked the choreographers to introduce themselves before the show began. In the same costume for her solo, Butterfly, Elisabeth Kindler-Abali, from Berlin but now living in Berkeley, made a vivid impression of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, with a simultaneous combination of elementz of omnislow, sinuous motion of her body and sharp jerks in her limbs and joints. Most of her piece was done in slow motion, but midway it became quite animated for a brief moment.

Her performance, lasting about seven minutes, came right after the longest piece of the program, The Beginning, by Elementz of Omni (pictured), two talented young CSU Monterey Bay hip-hop dancers who appeared in last summer’s Choreographer’s Showcase. Elton Domingue and Anthony “AJ” Ellis, who formed their duo only last year, brought their audience to laughter during both of their Spector appearances. These guys are dance sponges whose witty style is comprised of moves from just about every other contemporary dance movement you can think of, with roots in Michael Jackson. To dazzling effect, they play off each other, with black and white costume contrasts that are reflected in their dancing, and mime, and comedy. That includes a bunch of mirroring of gestures and bits in slow-mo. But to my eye, their style is also unique, in total good fun and continually creative within the complex music score they assembled. (Their reputation around the state is growing. You can see their work on YouTube.)

What followed Kindler-Abali’s performance was another highlight of the program, Mariah Steele’s Fledglings, a solo danced masterfully by Kristen Bell. Both designer and dancer displayed an extraordinarily high level of sophistication and professional technique. The piece perfectly fits with two movements from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, the joyful Prelude and the circumspect Air. Bell burst from the wings in exuberant spirits for the first part, smiling broadly and grandstanding unashamedly. She totally owned the piece, as she would do in Air, a mostly minor-key, inward-turning episode, to which she gave a wide range of expressivity.

Just ahead of Elementz of Omni’s The Beginning, Emily Kerr danced the comedic Dorset Garden by Milissa Payne Bradley, beginning with a large glass of water—deposited into the hand of an audience member, a commedia dell’arte costume strangely juxtaposed to a gloomy vocal chaconne by Henry Purcell, composed in England while the residents of Salem were hanging witches.

The program opened with About: FACE designed by Jeannine Charles and created here by seven female dancers, to an arrangement for three string instruments of the famous violin chaconne by JS Bach. The piece opened with two pairs of dancers opposite a solo. There were plenty of synchronized patterns, including triangles, and some startling effects, notably one dancer standing on the shoulders of another.

Charles’ A-Tension, in the second half of the program, was about conflict, with pushing, pulling and some faux kicking between the two men and two women dancers. The obviously pregnant Stephanie Harvey’s Transit(ional) Perspective explored the range of her emotions as she anticipates the big day. It was danced by five women, Angela Dice Nguyen as soloist opposite the ensemble.

Julie Mulvihill’s Grandma’s Attic was created by Brenda Solis and Rigoberto Torres, each alternately lifting one another. (They are about the same size and weight.) Synchronized patterns and calisthenics, rigorous almost to the point of tortuous, dealt with nostalgic memories of past relationships.

Mary Carbonara danced her own circumspect soon and briefly around and inside a ring of curtains laid on the floor, to Patti Griffins song Be Careful. Lissa Resnick’s Temptation, danced to Indian classical music, opened with a highly agitated solo by Nathan Ortiz that was only tamed with the voluptuously costumed appearance of Ellen Bigelow. Their ensuing duo carried the piece with sensual allure until, at last Ortiz withdrew to pray at a candle on a small table.

Tracy Kofford’s Intersecting Fugue ended the concert with a company of nine dancers wearing identical shifts, deployed alternately in full ensemble with largely synchronized patterns, and more personal breakout groupings.