Sunday, May 21, 2017

Smuin - Dance Series 02

Dance Series 02
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
May 20th, 2017

World premieres, contemporary ballet vocabulary, abstract choreography, historical references. All were present in Smuin’s Dance Series 02, the concluding program of the company’s twenty-third year. A triple bill of Nicole Haskins’ The Poetry of Being, Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open and Trey McIntyre’s Be Here Now, Dance Series 02 is currently in the middle of its San Francisco engagement at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - running through next weekend - and from there, will head to Carmel for this season’s last performances.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence score sang through the air as the curtain revealed Nicole Haskins’ premiere work The Poetry of Being. Eight dancers were costumed in blue, the women’s skirts having a lovely inner layer of contrasting teal, and a lead couple, Erica Felsch and Robert Kretz, in taupe. The visuals were not at all ostentatious, allowing Haskins’ vivacious choreography to eat up the space, unencumbered. Joyousness, buoyancy and forward motion pervaded the abstract work, with recurring upper body lifts and sliding circuits in open fourth position. And while The Poetry of Being seemed to be mostly about this movement in this place, there was a pull outward, with the cast gathering at the front of the stage multiple times and gazing out on the horizon.

The piece seemed to settle into its groove more in the second half, with the phrase material relaxing a bit, allowing room to luxuriate in the transitional spaces. Felsch and Kretz’s central pas de deux was a delight; a courtly duet abounding with intertwined arms and swiveling spins. With the stage bathed in a blue hue, there’s was a gorgeous, elegant skate through space and time. Following that main pas de deux, the cast returned to the stage, now dressed in neutral shades. And then the entire ensemble joined forces for a unison expression of reverénce.

The Poetry of Being was a solid start to Dance Series 02, with just one curious element - the costume changes during the ballet. Felsch and Kretz appeared for a short time at the beginning in the taupe and then returned in the same blue as the rest of the cast. Then, they switched back to the taupe for the ballet’s main pas de deux. The cast joined them, in similar neutrals, and then Felsch and Kretz changed back to the blue again for the final tableau. With the mood of the ballet staying more or less in the same dynamic range, the costume changes were a bit puzzling.  

Another abstract work took the second place on the bill, the return of Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open (2015). A good contrast to the other works on the Dance Series 02 program, Broken Open is communicated through suite form, and right from the start offers an eclectic approach to ballet vocabulary. Straight clock-like arms, flexed feet and parallel pliés in sixth position meet with strong turned out arabesques and classic pirouettes. As hinted at by the title, open postures unfold everywhere, particularly an abundance of second position in lifts, in plié, in jumps, in spins and in écarté extension. Two years after the premiere, some sections of Broken Open still seem elusive for the company, though there were certainly standout performances on Saturday afternoon. Lauren Pschirrer’s opening solo was all about defined specificity. And the men’s pas de trois (Mengjun Chen, Ben Needham-Wood and Jonathan Powell) brought an athletic, position-rich variation to the table. And then, in the final section of Broken Open, Rex Wheeler led the ensemble in a cluster formation – whimsical, light and refreshing. I think it would be interesting to view the work with different costumes.

Jonathan Powell in Trey McIntyre's Be Here Now
Photo Keith Sutter
The flagship of the Dance Series 02 program, Trey McIntyre’s new ballet Be Here Now is an homage to 1967’s Summer of Love, the iconic San Francisco event now fifty years in the past. An ensemble dance complete with an arresting video introduction, nostalgic soundtrack, crazy drug trip, giant ice cream cone backdrop and fracturing puppets, Be Here Now spoke of youth culture, community and being in the moment. Twelve dancers walked forward in slow motion, and then erupted into a physical concert; a collection of varying vignettes set to music from decades past. The emotionally charged choreographic sequences that followed expressed everything from frustration to protest, love to acceptance. The entire ensemble was all in from beginning to end, and their enthusiasm for the work was palpable. Erica Chipp, Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Needham-Wood particularly soared in their featured solos.

And there was something about the conversation between slow motion and fast movement in Be Here Now. These two states of being played against each other throughout the work, maybe a comment on the complex human condition people found themselves in at that time (and might still now). Feelings of being super present in an intentional space while surrounding forces seem out of control. The lengthy drug trip mid-point added escapism to the mix, a sense of risk-taking and unabashedly hurdling into the unknown.

A number of different props and theatrical elements made an appearance in Be Here Now, specifically in the middle of the dance, and it distracted a little from the choreography and the company’s performances. Both were so powerful and compelling and could stand on their own without the extras. But at the same time, the audience loved it, so perhaps a matter of preference. In the final third of the piece, Be Here Now did get back to its earlier community aesthetic and emotion-filled dance, which made for a strong ending.

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