Monday, May 08, 2023

Smuin Contemporary Ballet - Dance Series 2

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 2
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
May 5th, 2023

Last Friday, Smuin Contemporary Ballet landed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the San Francisco stop on their current regional tour. Led by Artistic Director Celia Fushille, the company brought a sensational quadruple bill for this last program of 2022-2023. Though what transpired on stage was anything but final. Yes, Dance Series 2 closes the company’s 29th season, but if you were in the audience on Friday night, you can attest to the feast of beginnings. A world premiere from the newly named Associate Artistic Director, Amy Seiwert; a roster of dancers who are not only individually impressive, but seamlessly gelling together as a group; and an organization on the cusp of its 30th anniversary. What a night!

A perfect welcome into the theater space, Dance Series 2 kicked off with a pair of shorter ballets, Katarzyna Skarpetowska’s Sextette (2021) and Founder Michael Smuin’s Dream (1999). Danced by four women and two men and set to a stirring Bach concerto, Sextette is a joyful study in stage patterning and cannoned timing. Movement phrases had staggered starts, like much Baroque music. A delight to watch, the choreography was lush, melty, legato, and incredibly intricate. The Smuin dancers were lovely in this chamber work, with just a few partnering moments proving tricky. 

Moving out of the Baroque era into the Romanticism of Chopin, Smuin’s Dream took the next spot in Dance Series 2. A gorgeous duet framed by a dark starry backdrop and superbly danced at this performance by Brennan Wall and Ricardo Dyer, we could have easily been watching a pas de deux from Romeo & Juliet (with a few costume tweaks). It was that sweet; that tender; that romantic. But unlike many classical ballet duets, Dream was not at all fussy. It was full of giant, overhead lifts, and an undeniable sense of searching – both for something and someone.

Tessa Barbour, Cassidy Isaacson and Terez Dean Orr
in Caniparoli's Swipe
Photo Chris Hardy

With multiple choreographic chapters coming together to create a cohesive whole, contemporary suite structure took center stage in the last two pieces. Deliciously unpredictable from one moment to the next, Val Caniparoli’s full throttle Swipe (2012) had the best technical dancing of the evening. Performed by seven dancers over seven sections, staccato, angular movement gave a decidedly mechanical, robotic feel. Hips jutted out in space, ribs hyperextended and arms flew at spectacular speeds. Movement influences ranged from the catwalk to disco to African dance, all while Gabriel Prokofiev’s score pulsed and drummed through the air. Swipe was a crowd-pleaser, to be sure, though for me, the score stayed more or less in the same dynamic range when compared to the changeable and unexpected choreography. And the work did feel a little on the lengthy side. 

Dance Series 2 closed with Seiwert’s new playful, spirited, colorful suite, French Kiss, set to a beautiful collection of music from Pink Martini. As the lights went up, the large ensemble (fifteen dancers!) cycled through a winning series of mannequin-esque poses and gestures. These initial moments set the tone for the rest of the piece. While there were some purposefully reflective sequences, overall French Kiss was sweet, happy and fun; you couldn’t help but smile when looking at the stage. Actual mannequins made an appearance mid-way through, as did some other theatrical props. But it was never too crowded or too busy. There is much to love about Seiwert’s choreography and for me, her treatment of pointework is most intriguing. She combines full pointe and non-pointework together. She explores demi-pointe in pointe shoes, revealing new choreographic vocabulary and possibilities. French Kiss was a hit. I’m sure it won’t be every long before Smuin’s audiences see it again.

Smuin Ballet in Seiwert's French Kiss
Photo Chris Hardy


Monday, April 24, 2023

San Francisco Ballet - "Romeo & Juliet"

San Francisco Ballet
Romeo & Juliet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
April 21st, 2023

Whether the ballet, the stage play or the original text, when you spend time in the world of Romeo & Juliet, a complex narrative unfolds. It’s a tragic love story. It’s a cautionary tale about hate. It unpacks how human beings value each other. It shows the consequences of rash actions. It’s about trajectory; about timing. On Friday night, as San Francisco Ballet opened the final program of 2023, all these themes percolated throughout the War Memorial Opera House. This is another ballet that SFB audiences are very familiar with – choreographed by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and premiering almost thirty years ago. As was the case with earlier full-length works this season, fresh interpretations gave the established work new energy. And opening night’s cast went a step further – they turned this known production into something astonishing, something sublime. Together, Jasmine Jimison, debuting as Juliet, and Angelo Greco, returning as Romeo, made this one of the best R&Js I’ve seen. Ever.

Angelo Greco and Jasmine Jimison in
Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Important narrative frames are established early in Act I. First is the hatred between the Capulets and the Montagues. Seething, violent and deep-seated, the charged environment brews in the very first village scene. It’s electric, angry and one wonders how anything beautiful can grow in such a hostile environment. Also, Act I shows a change of romantic trajectory. Originally, Romeo thought Rosaline to be his future and Juliet thought the same of Paris. How things would dramatically shift over the course of a masked ball. Romeo and Juliet meet and each of their paths are altered forever. 

Much exposition happens in Act II – it’s short and full of many compact scenes, but a lot of action brings us to R&J’s final chapter. There’s more village antics, which feel a little superfluous to be honest. Romeo and Juliet are married, privately and secretly by Friar Laurence (Jim Sohm). And then we return to the town square, where two people are slain, including Tybalt (Luke Ingham) at Romeo’s hand. Romeo is banished and the curtain falls. As the ballet reaches its conclusion, Juliet hatches a scheme to fake her own death and sends a message to Romeo revealing that it is all a charade. She will wake and then they can run away together. Missed connections mean that Romeo does not learn of her plan, and in the end, they both perish.

The above synopsis details the events of the story, but more is needed to communicate the magic that happened onstage. To impart the mood, the atmosphere, the emotion and the triumphs of opening night. Though the production’s visuals and design need some updating, there was much brilliance to behold.

Greco’s Romeo, Max Cauthorn’s Benvolio and Esteban Hernández’ Mercutio were not only technically impressive but how they related to each other made you believe that they were like brothers. That connection must be there in order to explain the tragic events that happen later. Jimison was superb as Juliet, capturing every aspect of the nuanced character - from joy and innocence to fright and defeat; from youthful excitement to mature determination. 

Timing and trajectory intersect in Act I’s balcony pas de deux, if only for a moment. This sweeping duet of arabesque slides and circular spins was explosively passionate and both Greco and Jimison’s characters seemed overcome with budding love. While the entire cast was one of the best I have seen, this particular balcony scene was indeed the best. Act III opens back at Juliet’s bed chamber, and again, we see the love between the pair, though this time, intense grief is also part of the picture. They desperately want to be together, and yet, circumstance, trajectory and timing are against them. This truth remains constant until the final moments of the ballet, where the War Memorial stage undeniably saw some of its best acting in years. Bravi!

Angelo Greco and Jasmine Jimison in
Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Romeo & Juliet runs until Sunday, April 30th, with Greco and Jimison back in the titular roles on Thursday and Saturday evenings. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Cal Performances presents
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
April 15th, 2023 (matinee)

Pictured: Jacquelin Harris
Photo Dario Calmese
Spring in the Bay Area has much to offer. Generally, the weather is pretty good. Flowers are blooming. The farmer’s markets are flush with new, exciting produce and longer days equal more time outside. It is also one of the best times of the year for the performing arts, especially dance. San Francisco Ballet is usually in the final programs of its season, Smuin Ballet is into its second dance series and there’s a plethora of contemporary work to take in. But by far, my favorite thing about Bay Area spring dance is the annual return of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Cal Performances. Every year, their weeklong residency absolutely wows and delights the UC Berkeley community. And this year was no exception. As has come to be the custom, the company brought three unique programs to the Zellerbach stage. I was lucky enough to catch Program C, an epic, iconic quadruple bill of work by Founder Alvin Ailey and current Artistic Director Robert Battle.

Program C opened with Ailey’s Night Creature, a 1974 mini-suite set to Duke Ellington selections. The nocturnal atmosphere was undeniable – a constellation lighting effect projected across the back psych framed sparkling costumes of layered purples, greens and blues. The movement followed that same sense of collage with different vocabulary coming together to form a complete whole. Over Night Creature’s continuous three movements, many styles and genres were mined. 70s jazz with its sultry hips, slinky step-ball-changes and layouts; modern contractions, spirals and Horton laterals. Soft shoe influences. Classical ballet petit allegro and pas de chat. And while very different physicality, everything worked together so well. From lights up to the final cluster pose, Night Creature both mesmerized and captivated. And the Ailey dancers more than delivered in this technically challenging work. The music could have been a little quieter at the beginning, but it seemed like the booth adjusted as the piece wore on. 

Battle’s 2021 For Four also had music front and center. A compact, effervescent quartet, danced at this performance by Alisha Rena Peek, Xavier Mack, Deidre Rogan and Hannah Alissa Richardson, For Four celebrates the musical genius of Wynton Marsalis. At first, I wondered if each of the dancers might be following the line of one particular instrument, but as the piece developed, it seemed that their choreography, entrances and exits were more tied to specific musical phrases. Like the score, motifs recurred. Pointed fingers, knee falls, chaîné turns with goalpost arms. And while there were duets and trios throughout, each dancer also had a chance to solo mirroring the keyboards, saxophones and brass sections in Marsalis’ composition.

The iconic moments continued as Jacquelin Harris performed Ailey’s 1971 Cry, a haunting, potent solo made famous by the incomparable Judith Jamison. The program note for Cry shares this, “For all Black women everywhere-especially our mothers.” And the dance that Ailey crafted with that inspiration is both formidable and layered. Emotional tones varied – despair, hopelessness, realization and suffering met with resiliency, perseverance and at the end of the piece, joy. Harris reached along the diagonal before contracting inward; she strode forward in power before slowly curling down to the floor. Circular movements of the arms and upper torso took the focus towards the heavens. Cry communicates deep spiritual prayer and the brave act of remembering and on Saturday afternoon, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. 

Revelations (1960) closed the afternoon at Zellerbach Hall and it was no surprise that applause rang out before the curtain even went up. Like many AAADT fans, I’ve seen Revelations many times and have commented on multiple aspects of Ailey’s modern masterwork set to a collection of spirituals. Rather than repeat some of those thoughts, it seems fitting to revisit just a few of Revelations’ extraordinary, iconic moments. The opening wedge formation with its arm and palm choreography is simply thrilling. As are the gravity-defying back hinges that pepper much of Revelations’ first chapter. The écarté promenade and the final partnered pose are just two of the reasons why Fix Me, Jesus is so special. There’s the boat pose progression of I Wanna Be Ready; the double stag leaps of Sinner Man; and the bright yellow sun that ushers in that last scene. And truly, every instant of the finale, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham transports the audience to an entirely joyous plane.