Smuin Ballet, March 26

Amy Seiwert head shot 2011 by andreaBy Scott MacClelland

SMUIN BALLET’S Dance Series One, seen Saturday afternoon in Carmel, promised dance about dance. You could accurately infer from the program title that no narrative stories or dramatic scenarios would be represented in the four works on the Sunset Center stage. A purely abstract choreographic entertainment won the approval of the large audience. The most ambitious of them, Ma Cong’s whimsical French Twist and Amy Seiwert’s collaborative Broken Open, framed the program that surrounded two shorter pieces. Michael Smuin’s Bouquet and Ben Needham-Wood’s Maslow, which, like the Seiwart, was world-premiered by the company in September of 2015. Needham-Wood joined Smuin in 2013 and has created several dances that have appeared in Carmel. Likewise, Seiwart who today is Smuin’s Choreographer in Residence and enjoys a national reputation and following.

At twenty minutes, French Twist consisted of five vignettes to nonsensical words and cheeky music by Hugues Le Bars (1950-2014), taken from various sources. The texts are in French, more or less, and become a patter within the musical patterns. The piece was premiered by Smuin as a complete work in 2010. The company of eight dancers were deployed in different combinations, large for the first and fourth movements and finale, with two couples in the second movement and a trio in the third, and with lighting effects in place of sets. (This would be true throughout the program.) At one point, two nesting chairs briefly became props. Ma’s choreography, more charmed than laugh-out-loud, was relatively restrained in terms of the more intense music.

Smuin’s Bouquet put the slow movement from Shostakovich’s two piano concertos back to back, the first for three men and one woman, the second a pas de deux. Both concerto movements are circumspect and soulful, the first recalling that the work also features extensive solo trumpet parts. The second, with haunting unforgettable themes, would make some believe the composer was channeling Mozart. (It was composed in 1957.) Danced seductively by Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood, it lifted the level of audience enthusiasm. This revival also underscored Michael Smuin’s classical balletic background and illustrated his talent for adding uniquely surprising animation to his dancer’s moves.

Though only eight minutes long, Needham-Wood’s Maslow packed in a lot of action. Inspired by the American psychologist’s views on ‘self-actualization’ and composer Ben Sollee’s music of the same title, some of its bits did get laughs. Dressed in a business suit, Weston Krukow was Maslow, at first occupying a stuffed leather armchair, then engaging in a duet with Erica Felsch, wearing tails. After a pas de deux, she suddenly and magically vanished into thin air. Five more dancers joined in as Professor Maslow appeared to “glimpse inside the mind of man searching for his greatest self,” as Needham-Wood explained in his notes. In that regard, the piece came closest to an external program and was highly symbolic, but dance itself carried it.

Lighting design of the first three works was adapted–or in Maslow was an original—by Michael Oesch.

Seiwert (pictured above) put a quote by Neil Gaiman into her notes complaining that the creative process “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.” This was her way of explaining how Broken Open turned into a collaborative effort. She wrote, “When creating a ballet, I feel I’m watching something unfold that already exists.” She added, “Perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction.” The company of fifteen were fully deployed here, with ensembles that featured solos, duos and trios with the full company. (The fifth movement was a quintet only.) The women wore one-piece swimsuits which looked a little odd with their pointe shoes, but energy and imagination drove the 25-minute, six movement piece. The men wore tops similar to the womens’ costumes, plus leotards. The rich musical score by Julia Kent, from various sources, were all composed for bowed acoustic string instruments—frequently plucked as well—in minimalist patterns. There are plenty of lifts by men of women, and other men. (I don’t recall seeing a woman lift a man here.) While Seiwert always acknowledges the influence of Michael Smuin on her work, she is her own artist who has no shortage of original ideas in her choreographer’s kit. Brian Jones’ lighting was theatrical and glitzy, adding its own energy.

Broken Open got a standing ovation, cheers and whistles. Smuin’s next Carmel performance, in June, is titled Dance Series Two. I’ve already requested my tickets.

Choreographer’s Showcase, Jan 31

By Scott MacClelland

THE ANNUAL WINTER Choreographer’s Showcase presented by SpectorDance in Marina on the weekend featured the work of eight guest choreographers, three of whom—Mads Eriksen, Traci Klein and Jobel Medina—have been guests here previously. As is traditional, Fran Spector Atkins had each of them line up ahead of time to introduce themselves and say a few words about their work. On an extremely windy afternoon, this gave the audience a warmly personal connection to what has grown into a very popular semi-annual adventure of discovery.

That discovery process involves looking for a balance between the narrative and the abstract—storytelling and dance movement for its own sake. As often as not the pieces on display exhibit elements of both, but there are no hard rules that fit all. In the case of a solo work, the burden of communicating intent depends entirely on expression unless it is an exercise in pure physical movement. Yes, that statement is ambiguous, and there’s the challenge.

The biggest works of the program’s first half, each lasting about 15 minutes, were No Man, for ten dancers, created by Terronique Brown (pictured), and excerpts from Shift in Expectation, for six dancers, by Nancy Evans Doede. No Man, inspiVerroniquered by the John Donne poem, began with six dancers (including Brown) seated in two rows, knees drawn up, while the remaining four provided the action and initial energy. The piece unfolded into a dizzying array of ideas, gestures and mixed ensembles—not unlike the musical score itself compiled from various sources. I asked Brown if she had conceived all the elements and then assigned them to her troupe. Not at all, she told me, “It was a collaborative process.” (Fran Spector advised me that today, “Dancers want to be part of the process instead of being told what to do.”) I wish I had words to describe everything that happened here but will suffice to say that the formal gave way to the intensely personal and restraint to struggle.

Doede’s Shift dealt with the “conflict in roles women play in society.” Two dancers, one female and one male—sorry I can’t name them—grappled with the age-old stresses between the sexes, personal and, for the woman, anxiety-laden. The second part, Shifting Sands, drew in the ensemble of six, starting with compliant women—think Stepford Wives—who soon-on grow restless and ill at ease under the stresses of “Age vs. Time.” White leotards were complemented by gently colored cape/gowns used as surrogates for modesty. The original score by Blake Colie made use of percussion and electronica.

The first half opened with Stephanie Golden’s Unfold, to music of Girls by Slow Magic. Five women began the short piece in a circle of motion that gave way to poses then to a tasty counterpoint of individual lines. What Golden had to say is worthy of more time and development. Traci Klein’s solo, Creature of Habit, made the point that daily routine can dull the senses down to lethargy. Erik Satie’s adagio Gnossienne, arranged for acoustic guitar, underscored the idea. The implicit answer, hinted at in her movement, was to change the routine, which indeed she did as the piece blossomed.

Deep, a solo by Harmony True, to Adele’s Rollin’ in the Deep (which Donald Trump does not have permission to use) also spent time flat on the floor, then showed the influence of ballet in her arms as she rose and the pace picked up.

Following the interval, Angela Dice Nguyen danced her intense Inkspilt, with partner Stephen DiBiase. After setting an athletic tone in silence, Debussy’s soothing Clair de lune joined the dancers in a contradiction. The low-key music and the highly energized physicality and tight interplay continued to go their separate ways.

Costume color and unique styling and storytelling appeared when Jobel Medina, co-choreographer Joey Navarrette and Evelyn Cortez danced Próxima Estación: Esperanza (Next Stop: Hope) to music from Manu Chao’s multi-language hit album. The piece ranged from wide-angle dance to a close-up focus on making a tiny paper boat which was then pushed slowly across the floor. Feel free to infer the dynamics between two virile men and an alluring woman. Ten minutes later, a paper airplane dropped the other ‘transport’ shoe. Part of the imaginative piece was danced in dark ambient light without artificial illumination. This was an unexpected and refreshing departure.

The program ended with Desdemona, a traditional ballet, including toe-shoes, by Mads Eriksen. For music, Eriksen borrowed from Elliot Goldenthal’s full length ballet, Othello, and the heart-wrenching scene from Verdi’s Otello when the hero feels the full heartbreak of Desdemona’s imagined-betrayal—here oddly taken from a German language recording of the opera. The three dancers opened the scene, often en pointe, in a joyous upbeat mood. A solo ensued, to be followed by another now much darker. When Verdi’s music took over and the trio appeared again, the mood matched the gloom that portended the tragic end to come.

SpectorDance has events coming up in March and April. The next Choreographer’s Showcase is scheduled for the end of July.