By Scott MacClelland
A baker’s dozen of Smuin Ballet dancers took the stage at Carmel’s Sunset Center on Saturday in a mixed program that paid tribute to figures of major artistic talent no longer with us. I say mixed because the three works on offer were choreographically very different from one another. Amy Seiwert’s Dear Miss Cline, premiered by the company in 2011, opened the afternoon with boisterous energy and cheeky moves to a string of ten songs by Patsy Cline, a true and legendary queen of American country music whose life was tragically cut short in the prime of her career. Then came Return to a Strange Land by Jiří Kylián, a 1975 homage to John Cranko, who made the Stuttgart Ballet world famous and who also died untimely. The second half of the program was given over to company founder Michael Smuin’s Carmina Burana, premiered in 1997, to excerpts from a 40-year-old Cleveland Orchestra recording that frankly shows its age. At the time of his death, at age 68, Smuin was doing some of his best work.
Seiwert’s choreography and her costumes—co-made by Jo Ellen Arntz (see above photo by David DeSilva)—were fresh and fabulous. The cast opened the show with Come On In and Walkin’ After Midnight, and closed it with I Don’t Wanta. Most of the interior numbers focused on two sides of a failed love affair. (Isn’t that always the story of county music?) Accordingly, lots of boy/girl pairings for the slightly comedic tragedies were on display. Some of the numbers caught the spirit of the songs perfectly, like Tra le la Triangle, Foolin’ Around and Pick Me Up On Your Way Down. But others, like There He Goes and Stop The World & Let Me Off, seemed too congested with dance traffic to do justice to the song narratives. But the choreography itself made keen use of all kinds of gestures and sight gags, startling and delightful in its physicality, nuance and detail.
The Kylián piece, with two groups of three dancers in muted contrasting colors, took a more sober tone to selected piano pieces by Leoš Janáček. The dancing was also more formalized, often beginning or ending with complex structured poses. The repertoire of dance moves clearly came from Kylián’s classical training at London’s Royal Ballet School. And though expressively reserved, the piece was clearly heartfelt, given that as a Stuttgart Ballet member he was also a student of Cranko. I won’t attempt to claim, as some with keener eyes might, that Cranko’s work showed through Kylián’s, but it would come as no surprise.
Smuin used about two-thirds of Carl Orff’s cantata masterpiece. A glow from behind the darkened stage was enough to illuminate silhouettes of four dancers in pantomime before the stage was lit and the music began. The famous opening scene of Carmina Burana cries out for ritualism, and indeed ritual was an overarching character for the dance. But the texts (which were not offered) reveal the lusty, satirical and even erotic verses from the 11th and 12th centuries that Orff discovered in the Benediktbeuren Abbey, a Bavarian monastery. Several of the numbers were duets and solos which, in contrast to the ritualized numbers, were far more personalized. Lighting, designed by Sara Linnie Slocum, was a more complex component than earlier in the program and included two key light operators high in the Gothic-arched lighting truss above the rows of seats close to the stage.
This was the last of ten performances of a demanding program spread over just ten days and the company’s usual snappy precision went fuzzy a few times in the Carmina Burana. The Kylián piece also disclosed a couple of minor glitches. Maybe titling this program XXTREMES was a telltale. But the dedication, discipline and artistry of these dancers was otherwise an object lesson to the crowd on hand, which included both former and future dancers on the Monterey Peninsula. Meanwhile, Dear Miss Cline was a huge and virtually flawless success.
Smuin Ballet returns to Carmel with XXCENTRICS on June 6 and 7.