Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Smuin Contemporary Ballet

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 1
Cowell Theater, San Francisco
September 25, 2022

Early fall in San Francisco can be unpredictable, climate-wise. One day might be super-hot, and the next, downright wintery. But there are those rare days that are ideal. Warm, sunny and clear, where it seems like the whole city is outside. At least, that’s what it felt like last Sunday afternoon at Fort Mason Center as Smuin Contemporary Ballet closed their first SF weekend of Dance Series 1.

The company looked extremely strong in this program of great range and variety - two revivals alongside a world premiere: Rex Wheeler’s Take Five (2019), Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for A Rose (2009) and Osnel Delgado’s new work, The Turntable. There was much to delight on the Cowell Theater stage, but it was the concept of each piece that stole the show.

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in Take Five
Photo Chris Hardy
Set to a selection of Dave Brubeck tracks, Take Five celebrates the composer’s oeuvre and his fondness for a 5/4 time signature. It’s fun and entertaining. Has a distinct forward propulsion as well as Wheeler’s clever choreographic nods to the piano, the upright bass and the drums. But the genius of Take Five was how the costuming (by Kaori Higashiyama) was used. While the style of costume remained consistent throughout, Wheeler had the cast (five women, five men) constantly donning a new color, signaling a change in musical mood and atmosphere. Bright neon pink framed the high-octane opening and the finale. The choreography for green was sophisticated, smooth and nuanced. Orange heralded in a more spirited and plucky tone, maybe even a little flirty. Blue met with cool, chill, laid back motions. Red brought allure and purple, a knowing sense of nostalgia. Take Five was a splendid opening for the program, though it did have too many internal stops and starts for my taste. 

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in
Requiem for a Rose
Photo Chris Hardy

Originally created for Philadelphia Ballet in 2007, Ochoa’s Requiem for a Rose is one of those very special pieces. For a lot of reasons. Captivating choreography, a sweepingly romantic score and stunning visuals. The work begins with a sole dancer, Tessa Barbour at Sunday’s performance, costumed in a nude leotard with a rose in her mouth, almost like a rosebud. Her movement is sharp and angular, and she dances to a pulsing heartbeat, indicating a manifestation or a birth. Then, she is joined by twelve dancers wearing flaring red knee-length garments, cycling through fluid, soft phrases, accompanied by Schubert. It was as if we were witnessing the life cycle of a bloom – the opening soloist like the stem that was birthing a dozen petals. All the internal variations with their swirling spins and level changes showed how a flower changes over time. How the bloom might shift to the right or to the left; how it might droop and then revive; how it might close and then open again. Requiem for a Rose was close to perfect, the recorded music just needed to be a little softer.  

Closing Dance Series 1 was the premiere of Delgado’s The Turntable, by far the most contemporary piece in the lot. An ensemble work for sixteen, it was again the concept that drew the viewer in. Or at least this viewer. That concept was the notion of turning itself. In addition to having a small turntable center stage and a lighting design (by Michael Oesch) that appeared to rotate on the stage’s surface, the sheer idea of turning was paramount. Seeing something new, experiencing a different vantage point, continual change, all while being anchored to a single point, like a turntable. Most of the cast really leaned into Delgado’s lush movement, while a few looked as though they were having trouble letting go of a classical ballet esthetic. And again, the recorded music was a little on the loud side.  

Smuin Contemporary Ballet in The Turntable
Photo Chris Hardy



Saturday, September 24, 2022

Miami City Ballet

Cal Performances presents 
Miami City Ballet in Jewels 
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley 
September 23, 2022 

The Miami City Ballet in Diamonds
Photo courtesy of Iziliaev
It’s been a minute since I’ve had the chance to see the entire Jewels (1967) program, as opposed to one of its three sections alone. And I’ve never seen Miami City Ballet dance the piece. So, it was quite a treat to experience both – the complete George Balanchine masterwork performed by the sensational Florida-based company, under the Artistic Direction of Lourdes Lopez. Cal Performances made such a smart choice opening their 2022-2023 season with Jewels. Simply said, it speaks broadly. While each of the three chapters does work in isolation, the full triptych demonstrates the range and possibility within the neo-classical ballet genre. There’s something for everyone: delicate sylph-like variations, plucky sass, bold regality. Miami City Ballet brought their A-game to the iconic composition’s unmistakable tones and layered moods, accompanied handily by the popular Berkeley Symphony. For some, Jewels may have evoked an elegant display case in a deluxe boutique. For others, different ballet traditions expressed through neo-classical choreography. In any event, Jewels captivating essence cannot be denied. And that essence absolutely percolated from the Zellerbach stage on Friday night. 


Lilty, yet complex, chords from the orchestra pit set a perfect scene for the delicacy and loftiness of Emeralds, Jewels’ first episode. Emeralds did not disappoint. A gemstone known for its calming and clarifying properties, nothing onstage was ostentatious, flashy or overdone. Every extension, every step, every arm had such intention and joyful subtlety. Bodies (seventeen of them!) glided across the stage like ethereal begins, clad in viridescent hues against a mystical, glimmery green scrim. It was mature. It was sophisticated. And the musicality of the various movement phrases was phenomenal. Wispy port de bras met fluttering bourées. Footwork was crisp for the most part, except during some single-leg jumps, of which there were many. Dancers would leave the floor with a lovely ballon, but the pointed underneath foot seemed elusive for many on Friday. 

The Miami City Ballet in Diamonds
Photo courtesy of Iziliaev

After spending a moment in green’s calm and clarity, Jewels pivots drastically to red’s power and passion with Rubies. This middle portion has an extreme cinematic quality, like it could have been included in an old Hollywood movie or transported to the Broadway stage. Stravinsky’s surprising, unpredictable score frames an equally sly and mysterious atmosphere, Balanchine’s choreography similarly unexpected and beguiling. Direction changes slice through space like a knife. Flexed hands and feet suggest command and intensity. Cannoned timing questions how a movement phrase “should” unfold. Dancers froze in 2nd position plié. Extreme arabesques came out of nowhere. And parallel passés stood their ground, refusing to venture into the land of external rotation. 

Jewels concluded with the sweeping, grand, waltzy bliss that is Diamonds, a stone representing both strength and love. An immense cast of thirty-four dances this final section, a truly impressive feat. From the precise unison to the neo-classical musicality; from the courtly motions to the regal grand pas de deux, Diamonds was quite dazzling. Once again bourées glistened and arabesques expanded; lifts swirled and skimmed in the same instant. Diamonds is fantastical indeed, with many ta-da moments, and a charming use of demi-pointe in pointe shoes. If you love the Act III ballroom scenes from many of the largescale narrative ballets, you will love Diamonds. Even if it is a bit lengthy.


The Miami City Ballet in Diamonds
Photo courtesy of Iziliaev)


Monday, July 18, 2022

SKETCH 12: Dear Diary

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in 
Seiwert's Tides
Photo David DeSilva

SKETCH 12: Dear Diary
The Cowell Theater, San Francisco

July 15th, 2022 – San Francisco ushered in a recent July weekend with true summer Friday vibes at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. It was sunny and (somewhat) warm, food trucks graced the ample parking lot, the community was in full celebration mode, there was even a pup pageant underway. And just a short walk down the pier, an evening of eloquent dance was about to unfold on The Cowell Theater stage. Amy Seiwert’s Imagery opened the 12th edition of their SKETCH program, a choreographic incubator designed to push dancemakers and artists out of their comfort zone – encouraging them to experiment and work in new ways. Each SKETCH is thematically driven and derived, and as Artistic Director Amy Seiwert shared with the audience, this year’s theme was nostalgia. The program boasted three innovative premieres, each by a different choreographer and each danced by the eight Imagery company artists. Ahead of each piece, the choreographers provided a video introduction, both framing their work and inviting the viewer to learn a bit about their process.

First up was Seiwert’s Tides, a contemporary ballet which Seiwert noted, looked back at her choreographic career. From the instant the lights went up, an inextricable link to water was clear, as the title suggests. The opening moments found six dancers, clad in balayage sea-blue singlets (costumes by Susan Roemer), forming and re-forming various sculptural pictures and shapes. Ebbing and flowing as a tide or wave hitting sand. As the remaining two dancers joined the scene and the piece continued, movements became even more aquatic. Hands rippled through space; arms swam. Spins swirled like water being evacuated; traditional ballet fish dives took on new meaning. And just like the ocean, the movement never stopped, entrances and exits happened with such purpose, mirroring the urgency of the musical score. 

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in
Adorlee's Liminal Space
Photo David DeSilva
In her video prelude, choreographer Natasha Adorlee explained the deeply personal remembrance at the heart of Liminal Space – the loss of her father when she was a child. Tones, atmosphere and mood purposely varied throughout, as Adorlee illustrated the journey of grief as well as looking at how the passage of time affects loss. The contemporary ensemble work unfolded in a series of connected scenes, though they didn’t necessarily feel chronological. Some had tones of comfort and embrace, while others spoke of grace and levity. Scenes happened in unison as well as flowing in multiple different timings. There were images of sadness and searching, forgetting and the ephemeral. Moments of somber spirituality had a decisively religious tone. Angular, robotic motions countered fluid, stretchy sequences. Vocalizations and text came into the mix as did percussive footwork phrases. The work was filled with so many different layers, textures and qualities. From one minute to the next, you didn’t know what was going to happen or how you might feel. An apt reflection of grief to be sure.  

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in
Peugh's Kink
Photo David DeSilva


Joshua L. Peugh’s Kink took the closing spot on the SKETCH program, and it was certainly my favorite piece on the bill. It was fun. It was energetic. It was vibrant. It had both narrative and formal considerations. And it ended with some country line dancing that had me dancing in my seat. During his intro, Peugh outlined how thinking about nostalgia led him two different places: the exploration of country music through a queer lens and the re-visiting of traditional ballet syntax. Narratively, Kink was a triumph. From the opening social dance sequence, where pairings shifted and changed, to the many male pas de deux - duets that were simultaneously romantic, sensual and full of joy. But Kink’s formal/structural accomplishments were equally impressive. Textbook petit allegro phrases would converse with more contemporary movements. Batterie and grand pliés in 5th met with off-center postures and parallel shapes. Seeing Kink’s dialogue of classical and current brought Twyla Tharp’s 1973 masterwork Deuce Coupe to mind.

I have long been a fan of the Imagery SKETCH series and its philosophy – creating a safe space for artists to investigate, observe and traverse new artistic pathways. The resulting choreography is always interesting and Dear Diary was no exception. But as the program went on Friday night, a question of viewership arose. The video intros told the viewer what the coming dance was about and what the intention was. Some audience members may love that; but it’s not for me. It felt a little like starting a novel, skipping hundreds of pages and then jumping to the end to see how things turned out. And I can’t help but wonder if I would have viewed the works in the same way without that information.