Monday, October 09, 2017

Smuin - Dance Series 01

Smuin, Contemporary American Ballet
Dance Series 01
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
October 6th, 2017

The first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C echoed through the Palace of Fine Arts Theater – a famous music selection in concert dance, the score for George Balanchine’s timeless Serenade. Though here, this familiar musical opening was ushering in something different, Garrett Ammon’s Serenade for Strings, brought to life by the dance artists of Smuin, in this first program of their twenty-fourth season.

A cast of ten walked forward in a casual, unrushed gait, which quickly erupted into an expansive pas de deux for five pairs. Jubilant and varied movement abounded: flexed feet, thrown lifts, chugging jumps to the side. Morphing from a full ensemble statement into smaller groupings, the choreographic layering continued and accumulated with swiveling heads and emboîté turns; funny, whimsical moments meeting with luscious grace. Nicole Haskins and Jonathan Powell brought an innocent, playful vivaciousness with an early waltz and delighted with exuberant pas de chats and more emboîtés in the accelerando section near the end of the piece. This contrasted beautifully with the forward motion and sense of longing in Tessa Barbour and Robert Kretz’s lengthy duet; full of hope and strength, their stretchy arabesques sculpted the entire space around them. And while Serenade for Strings is not exclusively partnering, Ammon’s ballet is most definitely a dance for couples, steeped with a deep throughline of reciprocal respect.

I actually quite enjoyed seeing a different choreographic perspective paired with this known ballet music, and because Ammon’s Serenade for Strings has been in the Smuin repertory for a couple of years, the physical syntax is very much in their wheelhouse (with the exception of few challenging transitions here and there). Though I am curious about Serenade for Strings’ compositional structure, particularly the long middle portion, which, though beautifully danced, felt like it lagged. The piece follows an allegro-andante/adagio-allegro vivace movement sequence, or fast-slow-fast. Certainly a common format for choreography, and equally common is that the middle section can prove elusive, and that was the case here.  

Erica Felsch and the Smuin company in
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Requiem for a Rose
Photo Keith Sutter
Next up on Dance Series 01 was the much-anticipated Requiem for a Rose, by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a ballet that penetrates with its contrasts and dynamic arc. The lights rose to reveal Erica Felsch center stage, a scarlet rose held in her mouth. Replete with ferocious, powerful choreography, Felsch’s opening solo married angular motions with wild swings; intensely crossed 5th positions with pulsating isolations. As twelve dancers (a bouquet of roses) entered the space to join her, the visual contrasts were striking. They, in flowing red skirts; she, in a minimal flesh-toned leotard; the other women in the cast with their hair tied back and wearing pointe shoes; she, hair unencumbered and with no shoes at all. From this point, the stage would continually transform into a series of distinct vignettes, each one a dynamic journey of physical fortissimos and mezzo pianos, emphatic accents and sustained fermatas. An emotive first duet by Valerie Harmon and Oliver-Paul Adams stunned with its sweeping, innovative lifts, while the men’s quintet sequence introduced charged turns and directional shifts. A later enchainment by Harmon brought back motifs from Felsch’s first solo, re-imagined and re-envisioned, followed by the sublime intertwined energy of Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Ben Needham-Wood’s serpentine duet. And then, the simple, but powerful conclusion to Requiem for a Rose. Led by Felsch, the cast walked across the stage from right to left. Had they decided that she knew the way and they would follow her? Did they just want to momentarily experience and visit in her reality? Or were they transfixed and hypnotized by her wisdom and acuity?

Closing the Dance Series 01 program was the revue-style ballet set to Frank Sinatra classics, Fly Me to the Moon, created by company founder Michael Smuin. Elegant, sparkling gowns, white gloves and debonair hats filled the stage for this choreographically diverse suite – traditional ballet set off by lyrical flair, contemporary vocabulary infused with jazz and social dance. Fly Me to the Moon is cool, it’s sophisticated and most important, it is fun. Throughout the nine individual scenes, flowy, well-crafted, yet demanding, phrase material unfolded: parallel pirouettes and Russian pas de chats, layouts, drag slides and grapevines, batterie arising out of the most surprising moments. Old-school tap even made an appearance in the first part of Erica Chipp-Adams and Adams’ The Way You Look Tonight – a mélange of pullbacks, paddle turns and double wings. Every lift and motion in Felsch and Powell’s Moonlight Serenade fittingly ascended skyward. And Kretz was the epitome of smooth and specificity with the Fosse-influenced That’s Life solo.