Monday, September 26, 2011

Smuin Ballet - Fall Program

The Smuin Ballet Company in Dear Miss Cline,
a world premiere by Amy Seiwert at the Palace of Fine Arts
as a part of Smuin Ballet's fall program.  Photo by David DeSilva.
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA
September 23, 2011

The selections for Smuin Ballet's Fall program created a perfect balance of old and new.  Opening weekend at The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco brought the company's history to stage with three of Michael Smuin's works spanning thirty plus years: "Tango Palace" (2003), "Stabat Mater" (2002) and "Eternal Idol" (1969).  The evening concluded with Amy Seiwert's much anticipated world premiere, "Dear Miss Cline".

"Tango Palace" examined the traditions of this dramatic dance through the choreography of three couples.  Though all were purposely very different from each other in order to show various aspects of the tango, there were some common denominators.  There was tango as flirtation: two people meet; they tease; they play; they entice; and then, finally they part.  In addition, the tango was expressed as a passionate, yet fleeting affair.  Within the music were recurring themes of discord and dissonance, indicating a level of suspension without resolve, perfectly balancing the percolating questions in the subtext of the ballet.  Here was curiosity about another without the necessity of definitive answers.  Toward the end of "Tango Palace", a shift in mood occurred as the female dancers changed out of their character shoes and donned pointes.  Unfortunately, this section of the ballet was a poor conclusion for the tango study that had been unfolding.  With the exception of Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar, who were able to successfully combine the tango style with ballet vocabulary, the fun and passion dissipated and the energy completely fell.  A little bit of a letdown for a piece that started so strongly.

With this year marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, Smuin's response to this dark day was an appropriate choice for the 2011 Fall program.  The takeaway from "Stabat Mater" is hope's survival amidst horror and suffering.  A ten person dance, Smuin singled out one female role to embody aspirational faith, danced at this performance by Erin Yarbrough-Stewart.  While she was flung all over the stage and haphazardly passed from person to person, her strength and resolve remained constant and palpable.

Though the oldest ballet on the bill, "Eternal Idol" was by far the best dancing and outstanding choreography of the night: Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar truly were sculpture brought to life.  A circular understanding of this visual artform was omnipresent.  In the movement, we saw it in the rond de jambe (both à terre and en l'air), the port de bras and the ronde versé.  And, in the narrative, Smuin shared how the life of a romance or a relationship is cyclical in nature.  This pas de deux was an invitation to witness an intimate connection between two; a story of their bond and a glimpse into its ups and downs.

Nostalgia was the name of the game with Amy Seiwert's premiere work, "Dear Miss Cline".  An ode to an earlier era, with amazingly accurate costumes and hair design, the piece was a musing on the notion of a society.  The community aspect was very well communicated through the vignette-style choreography (short dances set to ten Patsy Cline recordings) both in the interaction of the couples and in the general camaraderie of the entire cast.  While "Dear Miss Cline" was definitely an audience favorite, the lack of dynamic change was problematic.  Much of the music existed at a moderate-to-low intensity level and the dance was similarly unchanged.  The choreography was inventive and interesting, but the creative movement wasn't enough to overcome the flat dynamics.  The absence of highs and lows makes for a ballet that reads as 'more of the same' .  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Dido and Aeneas" - Mark Morris Dance Group

Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
September 16, 2011

The opening of Cal Performances' new season is a highly anticipated event in the Bay Area as patrons ready themselves for an exciting year of world class artists.  This past weekend kicked-off the dance series with Mark Morris Dance Group's "Dido and Aeneas".  The tragic opera was transformed into an artistic collaboration with dancers and musicians performing each role accompanied by the superb Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, all conducted under the musical and artistic direction of Mark Morris. 

The choreography of "Dido and Aeneas" was a perfect embodiment of the Greek style with precise, deliberate sequences that were specific in their positioning and their intent.  Everything was perfectly placed and placed for a reason and a purpose, nothing blurry or wishy-washy.  This allowed the events to be clearly conveyed and reminds us why codified, position-based modern dance was so successful for so long. 

The intention of this dance-theater piece was to relate the epic tale of "Dido and Aeneas" through physical language, and Morris fully accomplished this goal: the chosen narrative was clearly transmitted.  But the work was and is so much more than a simple gestural representation; he was able to inject the choreography with its own contributions and lessons without compromising the guiding storyline.  The choreographic standout was Morris' treatment of the 'small' and how intricate details truly have the most unexpected meaning.  The opening sequence found the cast propelling themselves around the stage with fast parallel boureés, and later in the work a similar small movement (this time, heel twists) was utilized to cover the vast space.  Here we saw the transitions from one place to another; the starting and ending point were of course integral, but the in between, the journey is where the magic happened.  Domingo Estrada Jr. as Aeneas had a strong, powerful and commanding presence, though the most telling part of his solo occurred as he turned his palms to face up and out.  This seemingly insignificant motion said everything - he was opening up his heart and giving his soul away.  Morris' ongoing theme of how small changes drastically affect one's existence was brilliant.  

Though the majority of the piece was fantastic, some of the characters were a bit confusing.  The recurring 'chorus' were a delight to watch: their choreography interesting and dynamic and their performance flawless.  With this group of dancers, it seemed that Morris was trying to create a system where gender was left out of the equation: their androgyny was palpable.  Unfortunately, with a story like "Dido and Aeneas", the gender-bending doesn't and didn't really work; it just looked campy.  And while campy can be a valid, interesting and entertaining performance choice, in this case, the 'camp' just wasn't very good.  Similarly, Amber Star Merkens' interpretation of Dido was choreographically masterful but relationally unconvincing.  She didn't display any spark, desire or chemistry for Estrada's Aeneas, making it difficult to buy into their connection.