Sunday, May 05, 2024

Smuin Contemporary Ballet - Dance Series 2

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Dance Series 2
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
May 3rd, 2024

Last Friday night brought the opening of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Dance Series 2 – a captivating visual feast that serves as the conclusion to the company’s current season. And this is one for the record books. Not only does Smuin mark an epic three decades, but also a change in Artistic leadership. Soon Associate Artistic Director Amy Seiwert will take the helm as Smuin’s new A.D., as Celia Fushille moves on from a post she has held for seventeen years. Fushille and Seiwert have come together to craft next season, an exciting collection of past and present work which was just recently announced. But first, the 30th year must come to an end, and the Dance Series 2 program was a dynamic and entertaining finale, indeed. A quadruple bill of Founder Michael Smuin’s Starshadows, Brennan Wall’s Untwine, Seiwert’s Broken Open and the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoas’s Tupelo Tornado

Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander in
Wall's Untwine
Photo Chris Hardy

The first two pieces certainly had a throughline; and it was the notion of pairs, of couples. A lyrical waltz set to a Maurice Ravel composition, Michael Smuin’s wistful Starshadows (1997) had romance to spare. Three couples entered and exited the starry backdropped stage with dreamy, romantic abandon. Splits were imagined on and off the floor as the dancers created a woven tapestry of sublime ease. Calming and flowy, Starshadows was not just an ideal introduction into the performative space; it was a perfect counter for what would unfold next. Untwine, choreographed in 2022 by Smuin company artist Brennan Wall, shared a penchant for pas de deux. But unlike Starshadows, it began with a burst of dramatic charge. Danced by Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander, the first duet featured a plethora of moving lifts. The pair spinning, interlacing, and defying centrifugal forces at every turn. Then suddenly the mood shifted. Three additional couples joined the scene, and the atmosphere changed to one of quiet restraint. Classical ballet lines peppered the phrase material; subdued body postures grounded the composition. Then, the two sensibilities merged, showing the exciting play that can exist between quiet restraint and dramatic charge. It is important to note that all seven pairings were heteronormative – I wonder if the current casting decisions could be different.

Another mix of modalities was in store after the first intermission with Seiwert’s Broken Open (2015). A dazzling mélange of contemporary and traditional ballet, Broken Open invites its viewers to experience a multi-chapter physical novel. And it truly is quite an emotional ride, journeying from a serious, somber tone at the onset to a happier and brighter reality at the end.

Smuin in Seiwert's Broken Open
Photo Chris Hardy

The idea of ‘breaking open’ was everywhere in this full ensemble suite. Second position was abundant – in plié, in developpé, in attitude. Group vignettes were never stagnant. Rather, they were in constant motion, evolving and creating new landscapes and vistas. Legs and arms flicked into the air, seemingly ridding themselves of constraint. Pirouettes unfolded with high arms, opening up the front of the body. There was even a ‘breaking open’ of the stage area as Seiwert employed the wings as an active place, a place to onboard movement phrases. The dancers were tremendous throughout, with a stand-out, passionate pas de trois from Mengjung Chen, Dominic Barret and Yuri Rogers. And there was an extra infusion of energy on opening night as composer Julia Kent provided live cello accompaniment. The only thing that felt somewhat out of place for me were the costumes.

Many theatrical devices were present in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tupelo Tornado, a world premiere ensemble work that took a deep dive into Elvis-Presley-land. There were blue (suede?) gloves. A television set headpiece. A neon on-air radio sign and accompanying static. Masks, crowns, fringe. Music. And of course, much choreography, including a genius Fosse-style dance line. It was entertaining; engaging, and the differing elements all worked in concert to bring the audience and Elvis into a shared environment. 

Brandon Alexander in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's
Tupelo Tornado
Photo Chris Hardy

But Tupelo was not all bell bottoms and screaming fans. It was a dance drama, a piece of dance theater. Dance theater with a narrative message and theme. Tupelo investigated the birthing of image. The machine that may be behind the building of a persona. The created self and the loss of self. Fame, yes, but also costs, realities, consequences and appropriation. It was deep, nuanced and layered, and in the titular role, Alexander was transcendent.

Dance Series 2 runs in San Francisco until May 12th, before heading to Mountain View, Walnut Creek and Carmel.