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 actuallyÂ 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.
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.Â 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.
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 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.
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.Â It’s the qualities of Michael Smuin’s choreography – 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.