Tuesday, October 13, 2020

"Sunday With Smuin"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Sunday With Smuin
John’s Grill, San Francisco
October 11th, 2020

Terez Dean Orr and John Speed Orr in
Sunday with Smuin
Photo: Chris Hardy

Seven months ago, I would never have thought that heading into San Francisco for a live dance performance would be such a novel experience. Well, it is, something 2020 has made both rare and special. March 6th - The Joffrey Ballet at Cal Performances in Berkeley – was the last show I saw in person. Since that time, dance companies have innovated and experimented with various online projects as shelter-in-place has continued: sharing archival footage, streaming new works and festivals from home, branching out into dance films. But there’s nothing quite like live performance, and this past Sunday, Smuin Contemporary Ballet, led by Artistic Director Celia Fushille, brought a classy program to dance fans on a gorgeous sun-soaked SF afternoon outside of John’s Grill.

Known as an old-school steak and seafood house (est.1908), John’s Grill went outside the box with this endeavor, and it was a genius move. Their team constructed a performance surface in the middle of Ellis Street to allow for such happenings as this one. Outdoor dining guests (again with tables appropriately distanced) could enjoy a first-rate culinary experience while simultaneously taking in first-rate art. It was ballet dinner theater. Such an inventive collaboration between two beloved San Francisco institutions.

Smuin has been back in the studio this fall, heedfully diligent of all social distancing and safety protocols. And as Fushille shared at the event, one of those procedures has been to have the company rehearse in small “pods” to limit contact with others. It was the pod of Brandon Alexander, Cassidy Isaacson, Terez Dean Orr and John Speed Orr who commanded the stage outside of John’s Grill in Sunday’s mixed program of repertory excerpts. They changed costumes at lightning speed during the thirty-plus minute program, donned masks the entire time, and entertained the excited crowd with a mix of contemporary and classical dance.

World premiere choreography by Isaacson took the opening half, starting with Underwaterfall. The solo, performed by Alexander, was dually informed by staccato and sinuous dynamics alike. Tactile gestures peppered the phrases – a palm pressing against the head, hands tracing the legs. And a frozen running posture impeccably captured the feeling that so many have been living since March. With slinky slides, popped hips, whimsical head movements and figure skating-inspired lifts, Chemistry, for Dean Orr and Speed Orr, oozed retro elegance and grandeur. Yet at the same time, Isaacson simultaneously injected fun contemporary twists into the choreography like planks, flexed feet and parallel positioning. A final quartet, titled Chapter 2, saw abundant floorwork growing and accumulating alongside a similarly crescendo-ing score. The whole scene was quite dreamy, finishing with a stunning final standing lift.

Cassidy Isaacson in
Sunday With Smuin
Photo: Chris Hardy

After a brief pause, during which Manhattans and Martinis were swiftly replenished, fitting choreography by company founder Michael Smuin unfolded in the space. The repertory choices couldn’t have been a more perfect match for the restaurant’s classic vibe - nostalgic glamour radiating from the stage in every excerpt. A sweepingly romantic piece for Dean Orr and Speed Orr was undeniably hopeful while an expansive solo, danced by Isaacson, had an almost haunting quality. Sinatra-y dazzle took over in another solo, this time for Speed Orr, where athletic feats were paired with pure ballet technique and moments of pedestrianism: enviable turning combos, huge jumps and impressive fedora hat tricks. 

Understated grace and refined poise was the name of the game as Alexander and Isaacson took the space in a pas de deux informed by ballroom dance’s rich canon. And the Orrs returned to the stage to close the splendid afternoon with a bold and lively mambo. Marked with arabesque and parallel passé, the exhilarating number had fancy footwork and shoulder shimmies to spare. 

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