Produced by: "Cold Virtues" by Adam Hougland, and "Starshadows," "Homeless," "No Viviré," and "Obrigado, Brazil," by Michael Smuin
When: February 1-2, 2013
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
When: February 20-24, 2013
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
When: March 8-9, 2013
Where: Sunset Center, Carmel
Tickets: $49-$65. Call 415-912-1899 or go to www.smuinballet.org.
is an astounding treat, fabulous work to behold
Smuin Ballet's Winter Program features three short pieces by the founder of the company, the late Michael Smuin, along with longer contemporary works by Adam Hougland and Trey McIntyre. The program allows the dancers to display their abundant skill in three very different styles, and gives an indication of the current trajectory of the company.
The opening number, "Starshadows," choreographed by Michael Smuin in 1998, is an adagio for three couples who dance against a backdrop of inky blackness punctuated by stars, conical spotlights and swirling mist. The dancers move slowly, coolly, almost as if they are holding their breath. As the couples move between the sculptural lifts and poses, the audience is held at arm's length, observers rather than participants.
Two solos follow, "No Viveré" and "Homeless," choreographed by Smuin in 1994 and 2000, respectively. The classical choreography of "No Viveré" is superimposed on lively music by the Gypsy Kings, with some interesting and surprising moments. On Wednesday night the piece was danced cleanly and musically by Robin Semmelhack, but could have been a little spicier.
"Homeless" is a more contemporary piece set to the Paul Simon song of the same name. The soloist, Jonathan Mangosing, has an interesting combination of strength and extreme flexibility, and performs the piece with an easy, fluid style.
The real meat of the program, however, comes after the first intermission. "Cold Virtues," choreographed by Adan Hougland, was inspired by the film "Dangerous Liaisons," but the storyline takes a back seat to the movement. Precise arm and hand gestures dominate, evocative but not literal. The central couple's signature motif, a strutting walk with hip-level finger-fanning, is quite simple and yet thoroughly menacing and foreboding. In contrast, the entire cast is required to perform long sequences of challenging, inventive movement, with unusual rhythm and phrasing, in complete unison. This is a technically challenging, modern piece, and Smuin Ballet nails it.
The final piece in the show is "Oh, Inverted World," choreographed by Trey McIntyre and set to songs by indie band The Shins. The dancers wear Richard Simmons-style shorts and headbands and dance with youthful energy and abandon. Throughout the series of morphing solos, duets and group numbers, relationships change and shift good-naturedly as in any group of young friends, but individual stories can be discerned. The final section is essentially a solo in the midst of chaos, ending with the central character (John Speed Orr) absorbed in a private reverie, barely moving, while activity swirls about him.
The definite highlight of the evening was "Cold Virtues." There is something particularly pleasing about watching classically-trained yet versatile dancers perform modern dance - not abandoning their strong ballet foundation, but using their training to inform the modern vocabulary, to perform challenging and unfamiliar movement while remaining in full control of their bodies.
A company like Smuin Ballet - a small group of uniformly proficient dancers - is the perfect place to find such versatility, as opposed to a conventional ballet company with a more hierarchical structure showcasing a few standout stars against a less experienced corps de ballet.
According to Smuin's artistic and executive director, Celia Fushille, the company operates under an "all-star, no-star system," meaning that the dancers all are given equal opportunity to earn a role, and are not cast on seniority. It seems to me that this gives the company more flexibility in the kinds of works it can take on, since there is a pool of top-notch dancers with different strengths, styles and physical attributes to fulfill whatever a piece requires.
With Michael Smuin gone, the company seems to be working to keep his legacy alive by balancing past classics with works by contemporary choreographers in a variety of styles. It's the best of both worlds, and Smuin Ballet is up to the challenge.