Sunday, September 17, 2023

Smuin Contemporary Ballet - Dance Series 1

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 1
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
September 15, 2023

A stylistic collage, an arresting drama, a brilliant union of music and dance – what an opening performance for Smuin Contemporary Ballet! For thirty years, this special company has been a force in the Bay Area dance scene and Friday evening’s mixed rep, triple bill tapped into the group’s essence and power. Their commitment to technical excellence and artistic fervor. To simultaneously pushing boundaries and honoring history. To challenging audiences while providing moments of joy and escape. It was a night to remember at the Lesher Center for the Arts!

Smuin in Caniparoli's Tutto Eccetto Il Lavandino
Photo Chris Hardy

As the title indicates, Val Caniparoli’s Tutto Eccetto Il Lavandino (everything but the kitchen sink) provides the utmost in choreographic variety from start to finish. The ensemble 2014 suite, set to Vivaldi, really does have a bit of ‘everything’ movement-wise; it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s up next on the menu. There’s Celtic footwork passages and traditional ballet lines. Contemporary partnering and courtly pedestrian sequences. Full throttle running and Pilates-style mountain climbers. The work is quite dazzling. Costumed simply in shades of olive, nothing distracts from Caniparoli’s physical vocabulary or from the dancers’ performances, including a fiercely determined pas de deux from Brennan Wall and Brandon Alexander. It was exciting to see some new faces join the company veterans; and I can only imagine that the artists will continue to gel together over time. Tutto Eccetto Il Lavandino does call for a fair bit of unison, and that occasionally proved challenging.

Smuin in Kudelka's The Man In Black
Photo Chris Hardy

There are several constants in James Kudelka’s 2010 quartet The Man In Black. The two most powerful being the sober atmosphere and Johnny Cash’s haunting voice covering six luscious tunes. Danced on opening night by Alexander, Ian Buchanan, Terez Dean Orr and João Sampaio, another constant was the stage perimeter. Unhurried and unassuming, the dancers pivoted around the space, carving out circuit after circuit. With their gazes often on the horizon, an undeniable sense of purpose and forward motion washed over the space, as did a plethora of Western dance traditions. Percussive step dance. Line dancing. Contra dance. And then the final constant - a strong sense of togetherness, of community, and the palpable pain that emerges when that kinship is fractured.  

Sarah Jordan in Moultrie's Salsa 'Til Dawn
Photo Chris Hardy

Dance Series 1 closed with an epic party. The kind of event that you hope to be invited to, especially knowing that a VIP is on the guest list. A much-anticipated world premiere by Darrell Grand Moultrie, Salsa ‘Til Dawn was wholly exuberant. Fun. Infectious. The stage was awash with grand leaps, huge lifts and staccato accents. Spines, hips and torsos undulated from every corner, new company dancer Sarah Jordan schooling the group as to how things should be done. Such monumental confidence and freedom of movement! Sampaio also had his moment mid-way through the piece; it was impossible to take your eyes off him, his airy suspension and his long, stretchy limbs. Charles Fox’s marvelous, sexy Cuban jazz score perfectly framed every second of Salsa ‘Til Dawn. And it was Fox who was the VIP guest. While most of the composition was recorded, Fox took to the piano bench to provide spectacular live music for the fifth chapter of the dance, City Lights. It was simply magical to hear his genius in person, while Tessa Barbour cycled through Moultrie’s stunning phrase material. Again, unison in this dance was sometimes tricky, but to be honest, I doubt anyone really noticed. Salsa ‘Til Dawn was such a successful bash and I’m sure each viewer was thrilled to have been at the party.

Dance Series 1 travels to Mountain View and San Francisco over the next two weeks.