“Dance Series 01”
Smuin Contemporary American Ballet
Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco, California, September 29, 2016
I had the fortune to sit next to two very charming and chatty longtime Smuin fans for the company’s San Francisco run of its fall triple-bill. David and Dan, let’s call them, are in my experience representative of the 16-dancer troupe’s loyal base. They relish connoisseurship of the Bay Area arts in general, and just that week also attended the San Francisco Opera and American Conservatory Theater. For more than a decade they subscribed to front-row dress circle seats at the San Francisco Ballet—“until the board ousted Michael Smuin for that boring new director”—Helgi Tomasson. Under Tomasson, they said, “suddenly all the dancing was perfect, you know? But emotionless.” They were thrilled when Michael Smuin made a comeback with his own San Francisco-based troupe in 1994, and have attended ever since. “We just love the dancers,” they said. “What they do here—it has feeling.”
I can’t say I share David and Dan’s perspective on the difference between the dancing on offer at San Francisco Ballet and at Smuin Ballet. But I was glad to hear it. Their testimony underscores what a delicate and graceful job former Michael Smuin muse and now Smuin artistic director Celia Fushille has done carrying the troupe forward following Michael Smuin’s sudden 2007 death.
The company still, of course, performs at least one of Smuin’s ballets on every program, in this case offering “Stabat Mater,” his interpretation of Dvorak’s setting of the Catholic hymn to Christ’s mother, choreographed as an elegiac response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Fushille has also continued Smuin’s large-hearted support for emerging, more stylistically probing choreographers like Amy Seiwert: Smuin’s spring program will feature a reprised ballet from her and a commission from young company member Nicole Haskins. Most strikingly, Fushille has shifted the Smuin repertory towards a Euro-American style with works by choreographers like Helen Pickett and even early Jiří Kylián, offering richer formal experimentation without risking intellectual intimidation.
In other words, hammy escapades like Smuin’s 2003 “Zorro!” are mostly out. Squiggling torsos and a cheerfully non-threatening flavor of postmodernism set to classical music is in. The dancers are better than ever.
On this “Dance Series 01” bill, which repeats in the Bay Area cities of Mountain View and Carmel next March, the West Coast premiere of Stanton Welch’s “Indigo” exemplified Fushille’s finesse, balancing what will fly with the Smuin audience and what will feed the dancers. Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Nicole Haskins are, to my mind, the two greatest attractions of today’s Smuin, and “Indigo” showcases their sleek connection of fast steps (and, in the vaguely Balinese-inspired costumes, their taut bellies), while challenging their pointe work.
The choreography for four couples makes a quirky counterpoint to the Vivaldi cello concerti, with its head-bobbles and strobe-like ports de bras, but remains rigorously classical, and well-drilled by ballet mistress Amy London. The duets lean toward a slide-under-the-man’s-arm-and-twirl-around-in-a-promenade repetitiousness, but Yarbrough-Powell unspools through them entrancingly. Haskins gave something more surprising: technical chops through tricky turning sequences, combined with a comedienne’s face (she has wonderful Lucille Ball eyes) and a winsome solidity. Robert Kretz, in a solo, turned in credible bravura-style jumps; the other three men have a ways to go to catch up with him.
Welch’s duets are musically sensitive enough for these artists to take them deeper; I never felt much personal connection or vulnerability between the couples. Perhaps what Smuin audience members say they prize in “emotion” has less to do with intimacy and more to do with the surge of adrenaline delivered by blowout overhead lifts. Of which “Indigo” provided just enough.
The world premiere on the program, Denver choreographer Garrett Ammon’s “Madness, Rack, and Honey,” had the ingredients to rise like a perfect soufflé for Smuin audiences’ tastes, but never cooked. By happenstance, I years ago attended poetry lectures taught by Mary Ruefle, the irreverent poet whose collection of essays inspired Ammon’s ballet and lent its title, so I was intensely curious to see what relationship would emerge between her writings and the dance. Answer: None. What we got instead, to Mozart’s stirring (and alas badly over-amplified) Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major for violin, viola, and orchestra, was sexual silliness writ large, broad, and bizarre.
Gamely, tall Valerie Harmon rallied a 10-member gang through antics that involved taking on and off 1920’s style hats and shoving them on the men’s heads. The costumes by Cassandra Carpenter emphasized bare thighs and butt-swiggles. There was a lot of frisking up and down girls’ dresses, and a lot of straddling. What the slapstick needed badly was variation and thematic structure. Erica Felsch and Benjamin Warner danced the central duet with dogged exuberance, but I had lost the point.
Previously, Ammon set his treatment of Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” on the Smuin dancers (yes, he dared to choreograph that “Serenade”). The earlier Ammon ballet, too, struck me as spirited and sweet but lacking development. One great virtue of Michael Smuin’s “Stabat Mater” is that, for all of its simplicity of style and lapse of taste in soot-smeared costumes, he never made a ballet that didn’t build an implied narrative and a steady emotional arc. As different as her more cerebral work is from Smuin’s, Amy Seiwert learned a lot from her mentor. Ammon could stand to, too.