By Scott MacClelland
To the delight of dance lovers at Carmel’s Sunset Center Saturday afternoon, Smuin Ballet celebrated their 20th season with two world premieres. The first was Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino (“everything but the kitchen sink”) by San Francisco Ballet veteran Val Caniparoli. It used a miscellany of Vivaldi concerto movements and modulations for thirty minutes of every bit of ballet vocabulary seen in the last 50 years, honoring more dance masters than I could name but certainly including Balanchine, Tharp and Smuin himself. Predictably, the full ensemble (of 12) opened and (of 15) closed the program, sandwiching duos, trios and ensembles with solos.
Costumes in muted shades of green kept the focus on choreography and allowed the expressive rhetoric and whimsy to shine through undistracted by flashy colors and excessive lighting. (The choice of unfamiliar Vivaldi pieces reinforced that call.) Caniparoli also used that timeless classical trick of recycling particular gestures and poses, imparting an organic sense of continuity that glued his plan together. In its discipline, wit and romance, “everything” contributed to the whole. Some smartass technical bits provoked the occasional giggle, and a regular guffaw as, just before the curtain closed after the last bows were taken, a baby blue kitchen sink rolled out to the center of the stage. This was dance about dance and a pleasure to witness and engage, though, from some comments overheard at the interval, not to everyone’s taste.
Dance lovers and supporters Fred Terman and Nan Borreson of Carmel provided the lead sponsorship of Amy Seiwert’s But now I must rest. The 22-minute piece–the second premiere–paid homage to Cesária Évora, the beloved Barefoot Diva of Cape Verde, that archipelago off the coasts of Mauritania and Senegal that was colonized by Portugal in the 15th Century. The work’s title is from comments Évora made to Le Monde after suffering strokes and a heart attack shortly before her death in 2011; its score is made up of songs that propelled her to worldwide fame, most importantly São Tomé na Equador, which begs St. Thomas’ help to ameliorate the “equator of pain” suffered by the people, especially women, of Cape Verde and other Portuguese-speaking Atlantic islands. Évora’s voice haunts this music with its African and Latin-American flavors. Costumes and lighting added exotic spices while Seiwert’s designs turned up the sensual heat with slowly undulating duos and trios seen against fast-moving ephemera across the stage by other members of the company. The men repeatedly lifting their partners got a real physical workout. But Smuin dancers somehow always make it look easy.
Lastly, a revival of Michael Smuin’s irresistable Dancin’ with Gershwin. Created in 2001, it demonstrates that the late founder of this always-welcome company was as much showman as choreographer (which did not please all Bay Area dance critics.) Choosing which Gershwin, and performed by whom, was Smuin’s first challenge. Michael Feinstein’s They Can’t Take that Away from Me was followed by Prudence Johnson’s S’Wonderful. Tracks by the Canadian Brass, Peter Gabriel, Sting and Carmen McRae became terpsichorean magic, some of it laugh-out-loud sexy, like Erica Felsch and the men of the company with their trembling feather fans to Marilyn Monroe’s Do It Again. (Good as it is, Keith Sutter’s photo doesn’t really capture Smuin’s outrageous cheek.) And of course, this was where all the colors came out, costumes and lighting, pizzazz and attitude. Do I need to mention the bellowed cheers and standing ovation?
Smuin’s 2014-15 “unbelievable” season will bring three programs to Sunset Center. “Untamed” in late march, “Uncorked” in early December, and “Unlaced” in early June. Smuin’s work will appear in all three, and a world premiere by Adam Hougland will punctuate the June performances.