spring program 2013

Featuring Smuin Ballet
Program: Helen Pickett's "Petal," Michael Smuin's "Chants d'Auvergne" and "Jazzin'," a new piece by Darrell Grand Moultrie set to music by Wynton Marsalis, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Andy Razaf.
Where: SAN FRANCISCO, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street; 415-912-1899 or
Tickets: $24-$65 (The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts box office does not sell tickets for this program)
When: May 10-19, 2013

Where: MOUNTAIN VIEW, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street (at Mercy); 650-903-6000 or
Tickets: $52-$68
When: May 22-26, 2013

Where: WALNUT CREEK, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive (corner of Civic and Locust streets); 925-943-7469 or
Tickets: $54-$70
When: May 31-June 1, 2013

Where: CARMEL, Sunset Center, San Carlos Street (between 8th and 10th); 831-620-2048 or Tickets: $55-$68
When: June 7-8, 2013

A. Gomez / Smuin Ballet
Jonathan Dummar and Jane Rehm rehearse Helen Pickett's "Petal" for the Smuin Ballet, part of Bouquet, the troupe's spring program than began May 10, 2013.
Letting 'Petal' bloom as it will
A look at the great Smuin Ballet
rehearsing for its Spring Bouquet program
May 9, 2013

At the City Ballet School studios in San Francisco, Smuin Ballet is rehearsing three pieces for its Spring Bouquet season, which kicks off at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on May 10. I recently sat in on a rehearsal for one of the pieces, "Petal," choreographed by Helen Pickett.

Pickett started the rehearsal by exhorting her dancers to "drop into the music" and experience the dance. Refining the piece, to her, is not about making sure each eyelash and pinky toe is in the right place at the right time. It's about giving the dancers the agency to take the dance and make it their own. Now that they know what the steps are, they can mold them and interpret them in their own way.

"I'm not interested in cookie-cutter dancers," says Pickett. "I'm all about breaking the rules. But I'm also a technique nut. I don't believe you can break the rules unless you know what the rules are."

In this regard, the choreographer and the company are right for each other. Smuin Ballet is a small company, a collection of highly-skilled individuals, all of them both technicians and artists. Parts are not cast on seniority, but on qualities the individual dancers can bring to a specific piece. After getting to know the dancers and casting the parts, Pickett re-choreographed sections as necessary to bring out the qualities she saw.

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"Petal" itself seems to be about change. Constantly morphing duets and trios, groups moving in unison, solos flanked by onlookers alternately alert and engaged or preoccupied and almost sullen - the relationships within the groups continually shift, and the movement never stops. The music, by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, underscores the feeling of propulsion.

I think my viewing of the rehearsal was more than a little colored by me having watched "Jurassic Park" a couple of days before. (It was re-released in theaters in 3D — go see it again! The 20-year-old special effects are still astounding). I know, it seems like an odd parallel, but bear with me. There's a scene where Dr. Malcolm, who describes himself as a "chaotician," explains that there's no way to perfectly predict outcomes in nature. There are a billion variables to keep track of, and the best we can do is to remember that the world is impossibly complex, and simply react to the situation at hand. In other words, life is all about myriad actions and reactions.

Even the most rigorously trained dancer will not perform a movement the same way twice - there will always be tiny changes in impetus or balance or timing. You make choices on the fly, and so do the dancers who are performing with you, and your training enables you to deal with a stream of constantly changing stimuli to create something beautiful. It's part of what makes dance interesting both for the audience and for the performer.

For Pickett, this is something to be encouraged, explored and emphasized. She incorporates elements of improvisation into "Petal," opportunities for the dancers to spontaneously insert their own movement within a certain spatial and movement framework. But even when the steps are choreographed, she encourages the dancers to make their own choices in how to execute the movement.

"That was DIFFERENT!" she will exclaim excitedly, over and over, as they dance. "Good choices!"

There's no filler in this piece. Each step or gesture leads into, causes the next, and there's a reason for each one. Some of the movement is very fast, but you can't leave out or skimp on anything. Embrace the details. Move the pieces, everything in sequence, and then, as Pickett says, "let yourself feel flow." Turn on, tune in,and drop in.

Keith Sutter / Smuin Ballet
Smuin Ballet dancer Susan Roemer in the West Coast premiere of "Petal," by Helen Pickett, part of "Bouquet," Smuin's 2013 Spring Dance Series.
Keith Sutter / Smuin Ballet
Smuin Ballet dancer Susan Roemer in the West Coast premiere of "Petal," by Helen Pickett, part of "Bouquet," Smuin's 2013 Spring Dance Series.


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