Smuin Ballet’s home run in Carmel

Smuin Ballet’s home run in Carmel

By Scott MacClelland

Smuin Ballet’s performance at Carmel’s Sunset Center last Saturday sorely tempted this writer to go down the reckless path of glowing adjectives, those telltales that say more about the writer than the subject at hand. On Saturday afternoon, consistent excellence was topped off with moments of breathtaking flash. Offhandedly called Spring Bouquet, the two performances marked the end of the company’s current Northern California tour, and saw the Smuin premieres of Helen Pickett’s Petal, which first appeared in the 2008 Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s production, and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Jazzn’. These plainly gifted choreographers, the former born in San Diego, the latter in Manhattan, both make New York their professional home. Their work revealed classical schooling but with startling originality. And they are both still in the early years of already successful careers.

The full-house Carmel audience on Saturday gave a warm response to the opening number, Michael Smuin’s Chants d’Auvergne, the late company founder’s setting of eleven of the Auvergne folk songs in the popular orchestrations by Joseph Canteloube. Costumed in muted tones of blue, green, pink and ochre, the dancers displayed a pastoral picture of mostly classical ballet moves and poses. These fit the music’s bucolic ideal, while at the same time matched Canteloube’s urbane and sophisticated arrangements. (The recording on offer featured the voices of Kiri te Kanawa and Victoria de los Angeles.) As Smuin himself explained, “There’s no story…just the daily life of the young people in a French village.” Pairings alternated with the ensemble, sometimes asymmetrically but often returning to traditional choreographic harmony. In turn, the dancing was playful, flirtatious, sometimes jealous and, at others, deeply expressive.

Then came Petal, fifteen minutes of highly callisthenic energy. In her essay Connection, the author stresses that very goal. Yet, and despite her highly organized design, what came across was the degree to which the dancers achieved individual absorption of their parts. The four men wore blue pants, the four women pale colored leotard-style costumes. Much of the program depended on counterpoint and asymmetry yet stayed in remarkable focus. Still, cadences brought the busy scene to moments of repose and resolution. This starburst ignited cheers and a standing O.

The company is losing four of its valued dancers after this season: Robin Semmelhack, Janica Smith, John Speed Orr and Jonathan “Mango” Mangosing. The latter is retiring from the stage, torn between loving the dance and the physical cost in pain and stress. But you couldn’t tell any of this by watching him. Indeed, his own farewell gift, not listed in the program, was his virtuosic, intensely masculine solo to John Lennon’s Come Together, from Michael Smuin’s To the Beatles, the ballet that led to his downfall at the San Francisco Ballet. Mango was sensational here, and his standing O also saw three bouquets of flowers land on the stage at his (sore?) feet.

For Jazzn’ Moultrie set six jazz numbers—music by Wynton Marsalis, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Andy Razaf—for the full company (14 dancers) small ensembles and solos. Premiered in March of 2012, by the Sacramento Ballet, this work revealed Moultrie’s eclectic mastery and sheer authority of execution. He seems a complete package that ranges from classical to Broadway and from one generation’s style to another’s. His work has been danced on stages across the nation and seen in television commercials and in collaborations with numerous well known solo artists. Costume and lighting changes matched the mood of each setting, some deeply thoughtful, some laugh-out-loud funny, as in Terez Dean’s solo to Ruth Brown’s naughty “If I can’t sell it, I’ll keep sittin’ on it—why should I give it away?” All the variety and energy finally came together in a blistering finale that set the place alight. Another roar from the crowd, a home run for Smuin Ballet and, as suddenly, it was all over but the rush and buzz of a shocked, awed and thrilled audience.

Posted June 11, 2013