Monthly Archives: May 2010

Review: Smuin Ballet’s 2010 Spring Program

Brooke Reynolds and Ryan Camou in Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort presented as part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

Michael Smuin’s Songs of Mahler
Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort
Ma Cong’s French Twist

I’ve anticipated Smuin Ballet’s spring program since the beginning of the year, and it rightfully took the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by storm in a breathtaking display of the power of new choreography. With this program, you see artistic and executive director Celia Fushille’s careful eye for the future of Smuin Ballet and the right feeling for the pulse of what’s hot in the international dance world, with a nod to the company’s history and tradition as well.

This program thankfully gave me new perspective on some recent thoughts of cynicism I’d been having on the world of dance. I’d had the depressing thought that perhaps I’d just seen too much dance, because everything felt so done and overdone. Everything I saw seemed to remind me of Petipa, Balanchine, or more Balanchine. An article I read recently states, “Your average state-of-the-art premiere is so derivative of Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins that it feels secondhand (even when the ballets actually are by Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins, they feel secondhand).” The remedy to cliche is really good choreography, not just rehashed inspirations which just aren’t enough anymore in a bloated dance repertoire filled with similar pieces.

Smuin Ballet in Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort, part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort is a piece which hits right to the heart, dissecting, through movement, the heartache in Mozart’s music. Created in 1991 celebrating the second centenary of Mozart’s death, the music is set to the slow movements of two of Mozart’s piano concertos. Like the music, the choreography is simple and sculptural, yet undercut with drama and melancholy. The dancers are symbolic works of modern art, set in the framework of the prim and proper. Men manipulate fencing foils, and the women navigate their rigid dresses. But within this framework, there is a rapid exchange between the tension in angular limbs and stillness, and the vulnerable release in the partnering lifts. Rounded arcs in the arms breathed with tense and overwhelming desire. The dancers are dressed in flesh-toned minimal costumes with corsets for the women and bare chests for the men, personifying vulnerability and the core of humanity within a rigid society that aims to cover with decorum. The music literally hangs in the air, notes clinging and dying into silence. Petite Mort means “little death”, a metaphor for orgasm. Wikipedia defines, “More widely, it can refer to the spiritual release that comes with orgasm, or a short period of melancholy or transcendence, as a result of the expenditure of the “life force”.” Kylian’s Petite Mort is an ingenious abstract take on this idea.

Travis Walker and Jessica Touchet in Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort presented as part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

The world premiere of Ma Cong’s French Twist was a raucous romp of high-speed energy and quirky charm. Made up of a vocabulary of everyday movements with the men in shirt and pants and the women in flat ballet shoes, the shoulders

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and head all get involved in carrying one movement to the next. The costumes seem to refer to people in a French cafe or an every day setting, yet I personally couldn’t help but to wonder if a sleeker look would have worked better than the rumpled white dresses on the women. The earthiness of the grounded movement is mirrored in the throaty yet seductive French spoken word in the darkly humorous music of Hugues Le Bars (preview here). The trio between Susan Roemer, Darren Anderson, and Aaron Thayer was a particular highlight, with these dancers expertly capturing the humor, sarcasm, and violence in this movement with gusto. There is dark mystery, humor, violence, and fun – an all-encompassing exercise of the senses and emotions and poignant musicality. At just the beginning of his career, Cong proves himself to be a masterful fresh voice with a unique vision, and a clever orchestrator of this darkly funny production. It’ll be really exciting to see where his career takes him next.

Ryan Camou, Terez Dean, and John Speed Orr in Ma Cong's French Twist, presented as part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

The evening started with Michael Smuin’s ballet, Songs of Mahler. This piece appropriately set the context for the rest of the evening. In Songs of Mahler, Smuin brings a lightness to the movement to set to the densely lush and heavy songs by Mahler. There are a series of sketches, most of them drawing a story of relationships amongst small groups of people. It’s also a technical showcase for the dancers – Brooke Reynolds’ precision in her lines was pointed and poignant, Olivia Ramsay was all softly fluid lines and femininity, and Erin Yarbrought-Stewart embodied effortless grace and a natural flirtiness. Ryan Camou impressed with his high-flying bravura, and Aaron Thayer and Matthew Linzer in elegant lines. Although this piece stretched a little long, it still reminded the audience of the importance of Smuin Ballet’s past and its relevance to the present. It’s the qualities of Michael Smuin’s choreography

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– his musicality, his abilities to weave a heart-tugging storyline – that sets the standard for Smuin Ballet’s present repertory and their future. And with this program, the future of Smuin Ballet looks like one that will definitely be an exciting one.

Smuin Ballet repeats their performances in Walnut Creek, Cupertino, and Carmel. Go see it!! For more information, click here.

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. © Erik Tomasson

Saturday night was the opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s last program of the year, Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo and Juiet. It’s a beautiful production of a classic love story, full of sumptuous details in the sets and costumes by Jens-jacob Worsaae and lighting by Thomas R. Skelton. In a story that’s freely moved around to different locales or to no location at all, San Francisco Ballet’s production reminded us of its original setting in Verona, Italy. The Capulets party in a setting that looks like the Sistine Chapel. Renaissance frescoes of Mary peer down gently upon the altar where Friar Lawrence prays. Burgundy velvet curtains and gold saturate the production in rich colors.

The evening starts out with an injection of drama with the opening fight scene with excellent fight choreography by Martino Pistone (in collaboration with Tomasson), in a realistic portrayal of fencing and flaring tempers especially amongst the excellent male corps. (The riveting intensity of Gaetano Amico and Luke Willis stood out to me). But unfortunately for the rest of the evening, the emotion and the drama of the story is often left up to the dancers’ facial expressions and horrified hands, rather than in the dancing itself. There is a lot of running around, especially at important plot points, where storytelling is left to gestures and emoting. When Friar Lawrence exits the stage to retrieve the vial that will temporarily suspend Juliet’s life, Juliet is left onstage, walking back and forth in anxiety and fear for about 20 seconds (feeling more like 5 minutes) to the backdrop of Prokofiev’s opulent score. The dancing is reserved for group dances such as the acrobats dancing at the festival (Dores Andre, Benjamin Stewart, Matthew Stewart), or the “angry dance” after Juliet refuses Paris, or the balcony pas de deux when Romeo and Juliet share their first kiss. I just wished there was more integration in the use of the choreography to express the plot points that propel the storyline forward.

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. © Erik Tomasson

But thankfully, it’s difficult to tell because the dancers spin a magical tale with their dancing, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into creating something more than what they were given. There is no other dancer who does this better than Sarah Van Patten, dancing in the role of Juliet. Her musicality and complete embodiment of the character spun phrases in the music, even if it wasn’t fully supported by the chroeography. Her quick turns capture spontaneity and ecstasy in the golden glows of first love, and her arabesques rise higher and higher like the hope that overcomes all odds. Her dance monologue, right before she drinks the potion that will temporarily halt her life, was full of fury and fear. As Juliet, Van Patten was a wonderful balance of childlike innocence and womanly grace, the latter increasing more and more with time after her first meeting with Romeo.

The role of Romeo was slightly miscast with Pierre-François Vilanoba. With his magnificent stage presence, he was definitely more princely with a presence to take over the world, than an impetuous boy in love. And with a bigger build than Damian Smith as the volatile Tybalt, no amount of spark-shooting glares could match Vilanoba’s presence. Even when every cell in Smith’s being seemed pissed off and ready to fight, it didn’t fit the story as well as Romeo being the long shot to win a fight against Tybalt. But nonetheless, Vilanoba was a strongly secure and ardent Romeo for Van Patten’s Juliet. Pascal Molat excelled as the quick-footed prankster, Mercutio. Every moment onstage and every movement described his character as a boy who takes nothing seriously, and everything is a joke. Especially impressive was his ability to mix fencing and comedy with perfect split-second timing. I can’t help but to wonder if Molat was more suited for the impulsive Romeo, although it’s difficult to imagine anyone else to capture the comedy in the role of Mercutio as well as Molat does. Hansuke Yamamoto rounded out the group of the skirt-chasing Montague boys with high flying virtuosity, and the harlots Courtney Elizabeth and Pauli Magierek did an excellent job shimmying it up with a surprisingly visible and scene-stealing presence in the second act. Quinn Wharton was an elegant Paris with a glint of cruelty who was fine with forcing a girl into marriage who obviously did not want him in return.

Pierre-François Vilanoba and Damian Smith in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. © Erik Tomasson

In all, the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was highly entertaining in this beautiful production in a tale of timeless love. (My date quipped that this tale was a warning against the perils of punctuality, pointing out that if Romeo had come to Juliet’s tomb a few minutes later, their deaths would not have happened.) The straightforward and literal interpretation of the tale will please a wide range of audiences, and Tomasson always knows how to put on a great show; the dancing is sublime. It’s a good one to bring children to as well, and I saw many of them in the audience. It’s a great way to end another year with the San Francisco Ballet.

Anyone have any updates on the other casts (Kochetkova/Boada, Zahorian/Karapetyan)? What did you think?

San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet runs through May 9. Click here for more info.

Spotlight: Ballet San Jose’s Spring Repertory 2 program

It seems like a lot of ballet companies are all closing on the same weekend. It pours, and then it’s a desert for a few months in the dance

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South of the Bay, Ballet San Jose is a company that will be closing their season this weekend with their Spring Repertory 2 Program – Massine’s Gaite Parisienne, Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas, and Balanchine’s Agon. They’ve been on my radar for a while, but it’s another company I haven’t had a chance to go see. This company was critically acclaimed for their Tudor interpretation, so Jardin Aux Lilas was something I really wanted to go see.

Click here for more information and report back if you go see them!