Sunday, May 05, 2024

Smuin Contemporary Ballet - Dance Series 2

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 2
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
May 3rd, 2024

Last Friday night brought the opening of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Dance Series 2 – a captivating visual feast that serves as the conclusion to the company’s current season. And this is one for the record books. Not only does Smuin mark an epic three decades, but also a change in Artistic leadership. Soon Associate Artistic Director Amy Seiwert will take the helm as Smuin’s new A.D., as Celia Fushille moves on from a post she has held for seventeen years. Fushille and Seiwert have come together to craft next season, an exciting collection of past and present work which was just recently announced. But first, the 30th year must come to an end, and the Dance Series 2 program was a dynamic and entertaining finale, indeed. A quadruple bill of Founder Michael Smuin’s Starshadows, Brennan Wall’s Untwine, Seiwert’s Broken Open and the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoas’s Tupelo Tornado

Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander in
Wall's Untwine
Photo Chris Hardy

The first two pieces certainly had a throughline; and it was the notion of pairs, of couples. A lyrical waltz set to a Maurice Ravel composition, Michael Smuin’s wistful Starshadows (1997) had romance to spare. Three couples entered and exited the starry backdropped stage with dreamy, romantic abandon. Splits were imagined on and off the floor as the dancers created a woven tapestry of sublime ease. Calming and flowy, Starshadows was not just an ideal introduction into the performative space; it was a perfect counter for what would unfold next. Untwine, choreographed in 2022 by Smuin company artist Brennan Wall, shared a penchant for pas de deux. But unlike Starshadows, it began with a burst of dramatic charge. Danced by Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander, the first duet featured a plethora of moving lifts. The pair spinning, interlacing, and defying centrifugal forces at every turn. Then suddenly the mood shifted. Three additional couples joined the scene, and the atmosphere changed to one of quiet restraint. Classical ballet lines peppered the phrase material; subdued body postures grounded the composition. Then, the two sensibilities merged, showing the exciting play that can exist between quiet restraint and dramatic charge. It is important to note that all seven pairings were heteronormative – I wonder if the current casting decisions could be different.

Another mix of modalities was in store after the first intermission with Seiwert’s Broken Open (2015). A dazzling mélange of contemporary and traditional ballet, Broken Open invites its viewers to experience a multi-chapter physical novel. And it truly is quite an emotional ride, journeying from a serious, somber tone at the onset to a happier and brighter reality at the end.

Smuin in Seiwert's Broken Open
Photo Chris Hardy

The idea of ‘breaking open’ was everywhere in this full ensemble suite. Second position was abundant – in plié, in developpé, in attitude. Group vignettes were never stagnant. Rather, they were in constant motion, evolving and creating new landscapes and vistas. Legs and arms flicked into the air, seemingly ridding themselves of constraint. Pirouettes unfolded with high arms, opening up the front of the body. There was even a ‘breaking open’ of the stage area as Seiwert employed the wings as an active place, a place to onboard movement phrases. The dancers were tremendous throughout, with a stand-out, passionate pas de trois from Mengjung Chen, Dominic Barret and Yuri Rogers. And there was an extra infusion of energy on opening night as composer Julia Kent provided live cello accompaniment. The only thing that felt somewhat out of place for me were the costumes.

Many theatrical devices were present in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tupelo Tornado, a world premiere ensemble work that took a deep dive into Elvis-Presley-land. There were blue (suede?) gloves. A television set headpiece. A neon on-air radio sign and accompanying static. Masks, crowns, fringe. Music. And of course, much choreography, including a genius Fosse-style dance line. It was entertaining; engaging, and the differing elements all worked in concert to bring the audience and Elvis into a shared environment. 

Brandon Alexander in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's
Tupelo Tornado
Photo Chris Hardy

But Tupelo was not all bell bottoms and screaming fans. It was a dance drama, a piece of dance theater. Dance theater with a narrative message and theme. Tupelo investigated the birthing of image. The machine that may be behind the building of a persona. The created self and the loss of self. Fame, yes, but also costs, realities, consequences and appropriation. It was deep, nuanced and layered, and in the titular role, Alexander was transcendent.

Dance Series 2 runs in San Francisco until May 12th, before heading to Mountain View, Walnut Creek and Carmel.  

Saturday, April 13, 2024

San Francisco Ballet - "Dos Mujeres"

San Francisco Ballet
Dos Mujeres
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 12th, 2024

It’s hard to believe that in less than a month, San Francisco Ballet’s home season will be over. The final two programs, currently running in tandem, close in the next few days. And after weeklong encores of Mere Mortals and Swan Lake, the company exits the War Memorial Opera House to embark on their summer engagements. It has been a stunning season filled with upending surprises and comforting classics. And upon entering the lobby and theater on Friday night, it was clear that something equally special was in the offing with Program 6.

Kudos to the SFB artistic team for making the whole environment feel alive and immersive. Rich, jewel-toned florals made ordinary surfaces smile. Art installations peeked out from every corner. And Maria Guzmán Capron’s breathtaking multi-fabric curtain, commissioned specially by SFB, adorned the proscenium arch. Program 6’s title spoke on two levels. First, it shares its name with a Frida Kahlo painting from 1928 or 1929 (sources differ on the year it was created). Kahlo was the inspiration for the second work on this double bill. Second, Dos Mujeres translates to ‘two women,’ and the evening featured work from two high-octane Latina choreographers - Arielle Smith and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Both pieces were premieres; Smith’s Carmen, a world premiere, and Ochoa’s Broken Wings (2016), an SFB premiere. While there were was much to comment on in each, it was the visuals and dance drama of these twenty-first century story ballets that captivated. The drama was heavy and intense; the dance, a little less so.  

San Francisco Ballet in Smith's Carmen
Photo © Reneff-Olson Productions
Smith’s Carmen has been described in many different outlets as a ‘re-imagining’ of Bizet’s opera. And that word was chosen because it is truly apt. The main characters are present as are themes of jealousy, resentment, passion, duty and rage. But the setting, premise, relationships, gender and definitely, the ending, are different. I quite enjoyed this new take. I also loved that it was edited from the typical four-acts to just one. Having said that, with only forty-ish minutes, Smith had a lot of story to tell in fairly short order. Carmen’s pace was brisk. On the one hand, that fast-moving tempo was energetic and dynamic. It demanded its audience’s attention and engagement from one instant to the next. At the same time, the pace meant that the viewer wasn’t able to sit with the various plotpoints or characters for very long. This made some twists and turns hard to envision and digest.  

Riccardo Hernández’ set design and Gabriela Hearst’s costumes were arrestingly on the nose, though the lighting didn’t always work for me. I get what they were trying to accomplish with darker light patterns highlighting the dilapidated environment. But it was too dark on occasion. Dance-wise, it was wonderful to see a pas de deux between two women - Sasha De Sola’s Carmen and Jennifer Stahl’s Escamillo – which I would argue is still somewhat of a rarity in ballet. And the circular phrase for when Joseph Walsh’s Jose was spinning out of control was Carmen’s standout choreographic and technical moment. But it was the drama that was the focus here as opposed to the dancing. 

Like Carmen, Broken Wings sought to convey a formidable narrative – the life and work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. For fifty minutes, Ochoa invited us to be part of Kahlo’s personal and creative existence, with all its pain, uncertainty, whimsy, volatility and love. A tall order, to be sure. And a very successful result. 

San Francisco Ballet in Ochoa's Broken Wings
Photo © Reneff-Olson Productions

Ochoa’s pacing of that journey felt reasonable, perhaps even a little slow in the middle. But the vibrant visual feast more than made up for any lulls. Color leapt from the stage – in fabrics, in headpieces and in the choreography, which was also a little more present. Imaginative creatures and beings that spanned the natural and physical worlds were introduced. Gender constructs were disrupted. A mammoth set box skated on the stage’s surface leading to penetrating questions. Was the box a metaphor for Kahlo’s imagination or a frame for her art? Was it somewhere she went to think, to hide or to escape?

Choreographically, Ochoa suggested Kahlo’s carefree joy with light, crisp batterie (entre chat quatre, and briseé). In contrast, she also injected twitching and tremoring motions into much of the phrase material, mirroring the physical ailments and chronic pain that Kahlo endured for much of her life. As one might expect, Broken Wings is a vehicle for the dancer that is cast in the titular role. Isabella DeVivo was a consummate Kahlo, commanding the stage with grace, clarity and depth. I liked the piece, though I will admit that it didn’t knock my socks off, but based on the reception on Friday, many in the audience clearly adored it.

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Joffrey Ballet - "Anna Karenina"

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani in
Possokhov's Anna Karenina
Photo Cheryl Mann

Cal Performances presents
The Joffrey Ballet
Anna Karenina
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 15, 2024

If you look on my bookshelf, you will indeed find a copy of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, procured at the beginning of the pandemic. It was going to be a homebound season, so what better time to tackle such an epic and mammoth novel. Well, four years later and it’s not yet finished. Someday. Thankfully, there are plenty of online resources to fill in the blanks – characters, plot points, overall themes. So, when attending any dance adaptations of the book, I can, for the most part, follow the narrative line. 

This past weekend, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet brought their 2019 version to Cal Performances on the UC Berkeley campus, accompanied live by the Berkeley Symphony. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov (well-known to local audiences as the longtime choreographer-in-residence at San Francisco Ballet), Anna Karenina takes the viewer on a wide-ranging emotional journey of duty, yearning, lust, hope and despair. Weaving classic movement with video projection by Finn Ross, song by Lindsay Metzger and stunning scenic design by Tom Pye, the two-act ballet was entirely engrossing. Possokhov had a lot of story to cover in a short time, and he did it. A multitude of scenes unpacked all the action, and each was cinematic, grand and fast-moving without feeling rushed. The motifs were all there: the trains, the idea of flying informing every pas de deux. And the theme of rebelling, resisting, and reacting to the era’s structural, cultural and societal norms was abundantly present all the way to the final blackout. This ballet gets many things right. From the undeniable passion to the compositional structure to the relation of a complicated narrative, if you get a chance to see it, go.

Act I has a lot going on, but again the transition from one landscape to another was incredibly smooth and well done. Early in the act, we visit Kitty Shcherbatskaya’s (Yumi Kanazawa) home where Possokhov’s choreography really shines. The partnering and solos were clean, inventive and surprising without feeling fussy. It is here that the audience encounters Anna’s (Victoria Jaiani) infatuation and entanglement with Alexey Vronsky (Alberto Velazquez) despite the fact that she is already married with a family. And from then on, the thesis of the ballet is set - the chasm between satisfaction with what one has and the desire for the ‘other’. What follows are multiple large group sequences – ballrooms, train stations, a racecourse. Whether there were too many dancers or too large a set for the Zellerbach stage, the movement within these larger scenes got muddled and crowded from time to time. For me, the choreography was stronger (and quite mesmerizing) when there were fewer people present - smaller groups, solos or the many duets. 

Act II’s first scene was perhaps my favorite of the evening, a brilliant pas de trois between Anna, Vronsky and Anna’s husband (Dylan Gutierrez). What a moment Possokhov built showing the interconnectedness and shared reality of these three characters. Arising out of that trio was an equally moving pas de deux for the two men. Unison phrases indicated and acknowledged how their lives were following the same track – in love with Anna, wanting her, and wanting her to want them. While I found this part of the ballet particularly compelling, I must say that I was totally enthralled with all of Act II. I know this because I barely took any notes. I just wanted to be in the room, witnessing the wonder that Possokhov, his team and the company was birthing onstage. The only spot where Act II lost momentum was during the lengthy epilogue, where the ballet heads to the rural countryside. The urban/rural dichotomy certainly plays a role in the source material, but these were the final moments of the ballet. It felt rushed (and a bit of an afterthought) to introduce a new theme at this juncture. 

The Berkeley Symphony, conducted by Scott Speck, impressively rose to the technical challenges and grand dynamics of Ilya Demutsky’s score. And Metzger’s vocals were equally sublime. Though as often happens when vocalists are paired with a full orchestra, the sound balance isn’t always ideal. When the orchestra was at full volume, it was sometimes difficult to hear the vocal line.