Sunday, April 12, 2015

Carmina Burana

Carmina Burana
presented by UC Alumni Chorus and Smuin Ballet
Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley
April 11th, 2015

Live musical accompaniment makes such a difference in dance performance. And if there was one choreographic work that was made for live music, it is Carmina Burana. While it isn’t always possible, live music ups the ante of this dramatic ballet and infuses the movement with electricity. New dimensions of power and vibrancy abound, ones that just cannot be achieved or replicated with a recorded score. This past Saturday, in a special one-night engagement, audiences could experience this phenomenon. Smuin Ballet performed Michael Smuin’s version of Carmina Burana in Berkeley with a huge musical aggregate: the UC Alumni Chorus, UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales, the Santa Barbara Choral Society, the San Francisco State University Percussion Ensemble, an instrumental chamber group, two pianists and three solo vocalists. As conductor Dr. Mark Sumner shared at the beginning of the performance, this was a special evening of artistic collaboration.

Smuin’s Carmina Burana is divided into multiple sub-sections that mirror the various musical chapters of the piece. Because of all these starts and stops, at times, the ballet can feel disjointed. But the live music made such a significant difference. While the series of starts and stops were still present (and some chapters had no dance at all), there was an overarching flow and fluidity to the work.

As the layered choral harmony hung in the air, Susan Roemer’s first solo viscerally haunted. Everything had an extra level of drama – her hands, her piqué turns, her balances on demi-pointe in 2nd position demi-plié. Joshua Reynolds, Robert Moore and Jo-Ann Sundermeier’s pas de trois was a statement of simple elegance with its unison low attitude turns, supported developpés and extended arabesques. Another highlight was Nicole Haskins’ solo towards the end of the ballet. Haskins danced the variation with style, technique and aplomb, and while there are some beautiful choreographic phrases, the vignette does come across as a little too busy.

Some dramatic flair and narrative interpretation found its way into the featured vocal solos. In a purely choral concert, I can see how this works well, but with the dancers on stage at the same time, it was out of place. And on occasion, establishing the right tempo proved challenging. The dancers and musicians definitely settled into the tempo they both wanted, but it didn’t always start out that way.    

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