By Scott MacClelland
CALLING its current program “Untamed” inspired two opposing interpretations of the word in Smuin Ballet’s Saturday matinee in Carmel. It got its desired implication in founder Michael Smuin’s 1996 Frankie & Johnny, a narrative piece full of color, attitude, Hispanic music and Terpsichorean delight. It got the opposite result in the program opener, Serenade for Strings, to the famous Tchaikovsky work of that name, in Garrett Ammon’s 2013 choreography that entered the Smuin repertoire last October. In short, Ammon’s work came up short, even lame at times, in matching the character of his designs to the character of the music.
Yes, there were echoes of Balanchine and de Mille, and no doubt others whose work I may not be as familiar with, in the patterns and ensembles chosen from among the 11 dancers but, gratuitous posturing and cutesy mugging here and there, made it as superficial as it was clever. The Tchaikovsky only gets really playful in the last of its four movements and this is where cutesy should have been consigned.
Having said that, the corps of barefoot dancers, the women in short skirts of muted blue, the men in dark pants and light shirts, all illuminated from the wings, performed admirably. To Ammon’s credit, he came up with some startling effects. But they could, or should, have been drawn organically from his original thematic ideas, the well-established ‘economy of means’ aesthetic. And, all respect to the dancers, their ensemble precision, a hallmark of Smuin’s abstract choreography, did not always stay on the rails, particularly in the opening movement of the Tchaikovsky. This strikes me as lower artistic sensitivity to available talent and resources than Ammon’s formidable resumé suggests.
Then things got better.
Objects of Curiosity, which Smuin premiered in 2007, is the work of resident choreographer Amy Seiwert, and seemed as if the music—by Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso—could have been added after the fact. Seiwert built her design on geometric shapes and forms. A large rectangle on the stage floor anchored the action, which included entries from the wings as well as through a vertical gap in the backdrop. (See above photo.) The 20-minute piece began in darkness with four men each occupying a square at the edge of the stage discretely lit in white light from above. Their motion was slow. As the lights came up so did color, revealing dancers, nine men and women, in yellow costumes each wrapped with its own fanciful red stripe designed by Cassandra Carpenter. Ballet, modern dance and calisthenics all seemed to come from a single vision. And an architectural one at that. At one point, the women at the corners of the rectangle, feet wide apart, were used by the men to measure distances the same way a draughtsman uses his compass. The lighting and scenic design were adapted from Matthew Antaky’s original.
The fab finale, Frankie & Johnny, Michael Smuin’s 1996 homage to his idol Gene Kelly—“I didn’t want to be like him. I wanted to be him.”—is a narrative creation that retains all of its original power. Johnny and Frankie were lovers. But he did her wrong and got what was coming for it. A scrim opened the show blazed with a banner and the voice of Glen Walters singing the ballad. Then Perez Prado’s Que Rico Mambo launched the recorded track that included songs by Celia Cruz, Beny More, Tango Project, Tito Puente, Arturo Sandoval and many more, all fitted neatly to the action. Yes, action! Its 30 minutes felt more like 15.
Totally in character throughout, Susan Roemer was Frankie, Robert Moore Johnny. In the Prologue they fall in love. The scene quickly dissolves into Seaside, more an interlude, with swirling colonial-style gowns, that finally arrives at Johnny’s Saloon, a real piece of scenic art. That’s where things got steamy. While Johnny looked the other way, Frankie was accosted and harassed by four men. When he wised up he accepted cash in exchange for Frankie then took up with Cat, danced by Jo-Ann Sundermeier. Somehow Frankie returned with a pistol and in four shots dispatched her faithless Johnny. Two cops arrived to arrest her but in the epilog she managed to cuff them to each other.
Compared to the abstract Objects, this scene was entirely representational, and vivid. Jonathan Powell’s Tango Dancers, a solo for two, with a mannequin head for the female half, provoked laughter across the audience.
The company’s early June show in Carmel, “Unlaced,” will include Smuin’s famous Romeo & Juliet pas de deux and a world premiere by Adam Hoagland.
Photos by Keith Sutter