Smuin Dance Series 02

By Scott MacClelland

SEVERAL SANTA CRUZ dance lovers were in attendance at Sunset Center on Sunday for Smuin Ballet’s season finale, Dance Series 2, consisting of three works. It began with Falling Up, choreographed for eight dancers by Amy Seiwert—who is leaving Smuin to lead Sacramento Ballet starting next season—that premiered in 2007, to a series of short piano pieces by Brahms.

If I Were a Sushi Roll, to songs from the album Confessions—words by Teitur Lassen and music by Nico Muhly—got its world premiere during this just-ended tour. Its choreographer is Val Caniparoli, whose Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino (Everything but the kitchen sink) was premiered by Smuin in 2014 and revived in 2016. (Both of these half-hour Caniparoli works are laugh-out-loud funny.)

The 2016 tour also premiered Helen Pickett’s Oasis, (top of page) which was revived to conclude the program of last weekend in Carmel. Of the three works, this was the most ecstatic and climactic, with a fabulous orchestral score by Jeff Beal and dazzling set design and costumes by Emma Kingsbury.

At 21 minutes, Falling Up (right) is a largely formal piece, using five Brahms intermezzos. Lighter shades of neutral colored dresses for the four women (in pointe shoes) were set against dark trousers and slightly lighter long-sleeve pullovers for the men. The up-tempo second Brahms piece imparted a note of joy to the dancers, but otherwise the work unfolds its choreography in coolly abstract terms. Mostly danced by pairs, one vivid scene configured one woman with three men, and the opposite. Seiwert’s original fingerprints are easily recognizable, like her spinning en pointe and graceful leaning poses. 

Sushi Roll used the full company of 15 dancers, the men in black suits with ties and white shirts, the women in black dresses, all in soft shoes. The gestures and poses were nearly always whimsical and often comical. But it required a great deal of discipline and coordination to keep everything clear. The song titles were inspired by YouTube expressions of “hope, longing, regret, failure and resolve.” Caniparoli took his title from “If I were a sushi roll traversing through a Japanese kitchen, I would be mostly fascinated by the people there.” The words to the songs were just as goofy as they were danced to. Muhly, a rising star of opera and other new music, used a goodly number of musicians in creating some cheeky new sounds, often using Philip Glass-style minimalism. The song titles included “Sick of Fish,” “Coffee Expert,” “Her First Confession,” “Dog and Frog” and “Printer in the Morning”. The opening “Describe You”, with the full ensemble, had the audience giggling all the way through then plain-out laughing at its conclusion. Various props were added to underscore the sense of silly texts. As with most of Smuin’s repertory, large ensembles break into duos, trios  and solos. Mengjun Chen had a large solo in front of the ensemble in “Nowheresville.” Erica Chipp-Adams took a solo for “Printer in the Morning.” Maxwell Simoes, now only in flesh-tone tights, danced the virtuosic final solo in “Small Spaces.”

Pickett’s Oasis is about water, or the lack of it. The hanging string curtains, forward on each side to the stage, farther back in the middle, gave an added sense of depth to the tableau. Computer-generated projections amplified the effect, as did the theatrical lighting by Nicholas Rayment and Michael Oesch. Solos were danced before several of the corps who sat on the stage as if an extension of the audience. The 25-minute piece builds in intensity from beginning to end. Beal’s opulent score could succeed as a stand-alone concert work. Smuin artistic director Celia Fushille told me “Oasis was originally created for 14 dancers. Helen Pickett tightened it for 10 dancers and had the sections more focused. An earlier solo she turned into the now expanded solo and some of the minor entrances for dancers on the sides were removed to draw the focus to the soloists.”

At the end of the performance, Fushille took the stage, promising another Smuin season beginning in the fall, and also to extend well-wishes to dancers Dustin James, Rex Wheeler, Erica Chipp-Adams and Oliver Adams who are leaving the company. “Rex will still return as a choreographer next year on our Dance Series 1,” she added.

All photos by Chris Hardy.