Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Smuin Contemporary Ballet

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 1
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
September 21st, 2019 (matinee)

The San Francisco/Bay Area dance scene unfolds year-round, with each month of the calendar offering exciting performances and awaited annual events. One of these anticipated moments comes every fall with the launch of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s new season programming - three different mixed repertory bills that tour the Bay Area through June. Last weekend, the first of these played to a packed house at the Lesher Center for the Arts. And while there wasn’t a specific theme outlined for Dance Series 1, one certainly emerged over the course of the show: the deep and enduring connection between dance and iconic, legendary music and musicians.

Zachary Artice in Rex Wheeler's Take Five
Photo Chris Hardy
Rex Wheeler’s Take Five, an ensemble work for ten set to a suite of Dave Brubeck selections, opened the celebratory afternoon with flair and gusto. Right from the start, jazzy tropes and nuanced poses imbued the entertaining romp: stretchy, elongated legs; grand floor slides; delicate, staccato jumps; and sinuous upper spines. Wheeler subtly incorporated postures inspired by musical instruments – hand motions that mimicked a piano, bodies transforming into upright basses. Like the ongoing pulse of the music, nothing onstage was static or frozen; kinetic energy was everywhere, though at the same time, choreographic busyness was avoided. And Take Five had a quintessential Michael Smuin-feel to it. I think the company founder would have been very proud to see the piece as part of the mainstage repertoire (this expanded iteration is a premiere, while the earlier edition was created for Smuin’s yearly choreographic showcase in 2018).

With its impressive technical unison, the men’s trio danced by João Sampaio, Peter Kurta and Zachary Artice, was definitely a highlight. As was Artice’s later solo, which captured the space with powerful jumps, sharp shapes and technique that was textbook exact without looking sanitized. Though Take Five had many of these special moments, the partnering struggled to combine passion with control and precision. And as with many dances that follow a suite structure, there were too many stops and starts throughout, which took away from Take Five’s overall flow.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet in
James Kudelka's The Man In Black
Photo Chris Hardy
In contrast, flow was strong in James Kudelka’s The Man In Black (2010), an emotionally charged quartet mining the musical canon of Johnny Cash. Performed by Artice, Tessa Barbour, Mengjun Chen and Sampaio, dramatic human themes abounded in this constant stream of consciousness. Right from the start, the idea of unsteadiness read clearly with harsh directional changes, off-centered poses and cantilevered balances. Framed by Cash’s expressive, often haunting vocals, bodies slumped over in moments of fatigue; images of self-harm screamed from the stage; exaggerated, slowed fight scenes emphasized violence; and manipulation took a seat at the table as the dancers took turns arranging and forcing each other’s limbs. So not a light work, to be sure (though some clever line dancing motifs did add a hint of levity from time to time). The Man In Black’s power, potency and unflinching nature, with equally powerful and potent performances, was undeniable, down to the final moments as, one by one, the three men exited the space to leave Barbour onstage staggering and searching for answers. 

Dance Series 1 closed with Michael Smuin’s 1997 interpretation of Carl Orff’s famed Carmina Burana, which I’ve seen a number of times. Check out my previous thoughts and analysis at:

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