A few weeks ago, I attended a Smuin Ballet performance for the first time with their Fall Program. Having heard about them several years ago on their famously sold out run in New York, it was a thrill to be able to finally be able to see them live after hearing such positive things about the company from some very picky New York dance fans who are only used to the best dance in the world.
The Smuin Ballet is a small-ish company, yet even in this economy overrun by cutbacks, you get the sense that they are a company that are doing many things right. My first impression when I walked into the Palace of the Fine Arts is the remarkable diversity of its audience. Not only were there the standard white-haired dance crowd, but there was a healthy representation of youth, that elusive target dance audience to build up future audiences – from young professionals dressed to a tee, to the more alternative crowd not normally seen at ballet performances. On a weeknight! Why is it even striking me, as a regular ballet goer, that ballet viewing is a not-big-deal activity that you can pop by the theater for some post-work relaxation with some friends after dinner and drinks? A paradigm shift, indeed.
Another tremendous asset to this company is choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert. Her world premiere piece, Soon These Two Worlds, was the highlight of the night. Set to the music of the Kronos Quartet called Pieces of Africa, Seiwert showcases an intelligent take on the quirky, sweetly lilting music. Propelled by tribal beats, Seiwert combines movements deeply rooted in classical ballet vocabulary with angular geometry and an earthy groundedness with a lower center of gravity in a seamless concoction that’s never obvious or forced (i.e. as opposed to many modern choreographers do these days, announcing loudly, “This is avant-garde choreography”). Surprisingly, this simple concept feels incredibly fresh. Seiwert shows a strong sense of musicality, and there is a thrill in the mercurial steps that constantly shifts and changes at lightning speed. There is a seamless whirlwind of sharp angles and floaty suspension, a playful lightness and athletic attacks. In typical Smuin tradition, this choreography includes a dramatic pseudo-storyline of a couple that comes together and gets gently pulled apart by the corps. This neither adds nor detracts from the piece. A communal warmth pervades, and it is a breathless and thrilling celebration.
Smuin’s Medea followed, where Smuin’s strongly compelling choreography was unfortunately overshadowed by over-the-top theatrics, from the smoke wafting from Medea’s cape to costumes that were suggestive to the point of distraction. I enjoyed this piece much more in rehearsal, where the choreography was more visible without the melodramatic lighting and costumes. The pas de deux between Jason (Matthew Linzer with statuesque lines), and Creusa Princess of Corinth (Terez Dean dancing with sensual edge) is a witty exploration of a gentle yet illicit love story that gets dominated by sensory overload.
The company lets loose in Michael Smuin’s Fly Me To the Moon, set to the music of Frank Sinatra in the spirit of Broadway. You get the sense that the Smuin Ballet feels truly at home in this piece, with this company that shows itself to be a company of performers that sell every single moment to the umpteenth degree. It struck me how rare it is to see this much nostalgia without a hint of irony or darkness (such as Paul Taylor’s Company B or Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite). It was a bit one-note for my taste, but no one seemed to mind as the audience reveled in the rosy nostalgia of simpler times. It offered the perfect moment of escapism in these rocky times.
Be sure to catch this program in February in Walnut Creek. This program will also be shown in Mountain View and Carmel. The Smuin Ballet’s holiday program begins on November 27.