Tag Archives: Mengjun Chen

Smuin opens 25th season with a winner

Smuin dancers in Ben Needham-Wood’s “Echo” — photo by Keith Sutter

That Smuin Contemporary Ballet is celebrating its 25th Anniversary season is a testament to so many things. To its founder, Michael Smuin, who died suddenly in 2007 while teaching a company class, weeks before a spring performance. To the company members who decided, in the spirit of their founder, that “we’ve still got a show to put on,” and went on to do just that, and do it well. To artistic director Celia Fushille, who has worked tirelessly since then to carry on Smuin’s vision and mission, cultivating a troupe of lively, engaged, talented dancers willing to work hard, embrace a diversity of dance styles, push boundaries, explore innovation, all while honoring the roots of classicism. It’s a mix that holds great appeal to audiences, and in this era of struggling arts organizations, one thing is certain: Smuin Contemporary Ballet has only grown stronger and better through its 25 years.

Five new dancers, two visiting artists and an apprentice have brought the company’s roster to nineteen dancers, and what is notable is how well they all blend as a company. Over and over I marveled at the pleasing synchronicity, not just in the steps but in the dancers’ intention. They looked polished and well-rehearsed on Saturday’s matinee performance. In a poignant touch, the program opened with Michael Smuin’s 2007 Schubert Scherzo, the ballet that premiered just weeks after his unexpected death. It’s a lovely neoclassical affair set to the third movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major. Nicole Haskins and Max van der Sterre were Saturday afternoon’s lead couple, back by an ensemble of 8 dancers. It was here the cohesive element charmed me: five couples executing partnered pirouettes in perfect unison, no small feat. Later, too, the five male dancers jumped and leapt as one. As the lead couple, Haskins and van der Sterre delivered strong dancing with an easy grace. Maggie Carey, dancing later with Robert Kretz, had impressively soft, silent landings to her leaps and jumps. All five females offered  photo-perfect unison attitude turns. Smuin’s 1969 The Eternal Idol followed, a tribute to Rodin, a romantic pas de deux bathed in golden lighting. Set to the “Larghetto” movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, it was sensitively executed by Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood, who arose as if from a sculpture, in skin-toned unitards, to intertwine and spin and stretch into languorous poses.

Peter Kurta, Erica Felsch, “The Eternal Idol” – photo, Keith Sutter

Fostering new choreographic talent from within the company was important to Michael Smuin, and Celia Fushille has carried on the legacy. The Choreography Showcase, first presented in 2008, allows aspiring choreographers among the dancers to explore and set their work on their fellow dancers. Featured in Saturday’s program were three such works, developed in 2016’s Choreography Showcase, by Rex Wheeler, Ben Needham-Wood and Nicole Haskins, respectively. Wheeler (since retired from Smuin) offered Sinfonietta, an engaging neoclassic work set to the music of Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation to the master). Susan Roemer’s costumes of white chiffon skirts and bodices with swaths of pale yellow-meets-green (men in similarly colored unitards) brought the “lovely” factor up even higher, emphasizing the expansive, flowing movements from the ten dancers, Wheeler’s efficient use of the stage space, too, added to the work’s artfulness. Notably good were Mengjun Chen (through the entire program), and lead couple Lauren Pschirrer and Max van der Sterre.

Tess Lane and Mattia Pallozzi in “Sinfonietta” – photo by Keith Sutter

In Echo (formerly titled Reflection), Ben Needham-Wood offered narrative invention, as the ballet opened with its spotlight on a bare-chested dancer in white slacks (Peter Kurta), representing Narcissus, of the Echo and Narcissus myth. A turntable beneath him was slowly rotated by five dancers in indigo blue (think: the sea). Valerie Harmon, as Echo, joined him on the turntable in what surely was a tricky balancing act of a pas de deux. Set to music by Nicholas Britell, this ballet brought movement, emotion and lyrical dancing from lead couple and ensemble alike, its ending repeating the beginning, like, fittingly, an echo.

Nicole Haskins’ Merely Players offered more contemporary fare with a jolt of indie-pop music, selections by Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. Reminiscent of the choreography of Amy Seiwert and Twyla Tharp, the dancing from the ten-dancer cast was joyous, playful, quick-moving.

The program concluded superbly with Trey McIntyre’s Blue Till June, his fourth work for the company since 2010. Watching the vivid, endlessly inventive, entertaining choreography served to remind me what a master he is. The opener is dramatic: smoke, red overhead lighting, a dancer (Nicole Haskins) seemingly hewn from rock, cactus arms pointing up, looking like a Polynesian goddess. Rocks surround her as the music swells. Then, in the blink of an eye, she steps forward, and the rocks—dancers hidden beneath rock-colored cloth—roll away swiftly. It was so not what I expected to see, executed so efficiently, that I knew right away I was in for a rollicking good ride with McIntyre’s Blue Till June, created in 2000 for the Washington Ballet.

Haskins in her solo dancing was fierce, angular, proudly defiant. Smuin would have loved McIntyre’s choreography, the way it showed Smuin dancers at their finest, all high energy, high level of artistry, mixed with a certain rebel nature that seemed to define Michael Smuin as well. The soulful, power-infused ballads of Etta James provided the music. Her laments about love and life were an apt counterbalance to the humor and irony McIntyre injected into his work. One movement flowed into the next, like life, from high to low, despondent to energetic, casual to sharply precise, often with a whimsical or comic flair, even as the dancer maintained a serious expression. Erica Felsch was laugh-out-loud entertaining as a dancer rigidly opposing the intents of an amorous Robert Kretz. Their pas de deux, and its ending, was sublime. An ensemble of five delivered their number with slumped shoulders, a zombie demeanor, with an energetic counterattack. Ben Needham-Wood’s “One for my Baby” all but stole the show. Ian Buchanan and Peter Kurta offered an affecting, unconventional pas de deux, and Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood brought the ballet to a satisfying close.

These dancers are powerhouses. Not once did I ever see a sign of fatigue, although they had to have been damned exhausted by the end of the program. Not the audience. We left, happy and energized by yet another successful Smuin program. I think it’s safe to say the company’s 25thanniversary season is off to a fine start, indeed.

 

“Requiem for a Rose” ignites Smuin’s Dance Series 01

Fly Me to the Moon; photo: Keith Sutter

There is something distinctly fresh and contemporary going on at Smuin right now, beautifully apparent in their 24th season opening program, “Dance Series 01.” The company, led by artistic director Celia Fushille, was subtly rebranded in 2016, incorporating “contemporary” in their title to emphasize their mission, to present work that melds classical ballet and contemporary dance. Smuin’s collaboration with inventive choreographers offers an experience of contemporary ballet that is entertaining, evocative, and original. Case in point: the West Coast premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s impressive 2009 “Requiem for a Rose.”

Saturday afternoon’s mixed-bill program in San Francisco opened with the return of Garrett Ammon’s effervescent Serenade for Strings, another dose of the inventive and contemporary, a 2013 ballet set on Smuin dancers in 2014. Ammon, acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of Denver-based Wonderbound, likes to blend tradition with adventurous new ideas, and here, has set his work to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, best known for its accompaniment to Balanchine’s legendary Serenade (1934). Adventurous, indeed. Happily, it works. Brisk, flowing movements and classical lines are interspersed with flexed wrists, ankles, jazzy head bobbles. Costumes, designed by Rachael Kras, add to the piece’s lighthearted nature, with the females sporting mint-green bodices and short skirts fluffed up with layers of petticoat-meets-tulle. They looked as adorable as dolls. The men, in trousers and untucked button-downs, appeared both relaxed and energized. Gorgeous arabesques, strong footwork and assured partner work came from the entire ensemble, which, on Saturday afternoon, included Tessa Barbour, Robert Kretz, Valerie Harmon, Dustin James, Erin Yarbrough-Powell, Rex Wheeler, Lauren Pschirrer, company newcomer Oliver-Paul Adams, Mengjun Chen and Erica Chipp-Adams.

Serenade for Strings; Photo: Keith Sutter

The stunning “Requiem for a Rose” was the program’s centerpiece, literally and figuratively. Created in 2009 for the Pennsylvania Ballet, the work opens as a lone woman (Erica Felsch), a Venus figure, stands under a spotlight, center stage, bent from the waist, her long, flowing hair a pale curtain, a flesh-colored leotard rendering her nude [looking] and vulnerable. A tremor shakes her inert body and soon she moves to the sounds of an electronic pulse, a heartbeat, punctuated by pizzicato twangs of a plucked stringed instrument. Slowly she straightens to reveal a red rose against her mouth, the stem clenched between her teeth — one that would stay right there, through the curtain call. The image was unforgettable. Her ensuing movements remained stark, angular, arching. The boom-boom of the electronic heartbeat increased in speed and fervor, until soon a half-dozen men joined her onstage, circling her. Bare from the waist up, they sported full, red skirts, marvelously designed by Tatyana Van Waslum, like petals of a rose, flowing fabric that undulated and created waves when they turned. Six similarly clad females (wearing flesh-colored leotards in lieu of bare chests) joined them to complete the image of a full bouquet of red roses.

Requiem for a Rose; photo: Keith Sutter

The Colombian-Belgian Ochoa is a masterful, innovative choreographer who has created nearly fifty dance works for companies worldwide, including Dutch National Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet of Flanders, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba. (Bay Area audiences will get to see new commissioned work this spring in San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 “Unbound: A Festival of New Works.”) European trained and Netherlands-based, Ochoa’s choreography, accordingly, delivers movements both classical-infused and abstract. Particularly satisfying to watch were the big, luxuriant port de bras, cambrés back, pirouettes and leaps from the dancers. Occasionally passages came to a halt with a squared-off elbow, arm gesture, a propulsive movement, that seemed to insist “not classical.” Legato stretches within movements lent an uncluttered, spacious feeling to it all. The music, too, the adagio from Schubert’s Quintet in C-Major, was lush, full of space, and romantic possibilities. Indeed, Ochoa, chose this music because she found it to be “the most romantic music I know.”

“Requiem for a Rose,” according to Ochoa, strives to highlight the differences between romance and love, the former, elegant, easy, the latter, raw, angular. The lone, vulnerable female with the red rose in her mouth is a metaphor for real love. Roses, of course, are vivid and romantic. But roses die, and the red-skirted dancers at one point sway forward, bending over, a sort of wave, hand over heart, a hesitation. Throughout, Tony Tucci’s lighting (Michael Oesch’s adaption for Smuin) lent the piece further theatricality. Ochoa also creates for theatre, opera, and fashion events, and it shows, in all good ways. The opening scene had been like living art. The colors, the contrasts, the textures, the sounds; days later, it, and Felsch’s compelling performance, still haunt me.

Fly Me to the Moon; photo: Keith Sutter

Concluding the program was the late Michael Smuin’s Fly Me to the Moon, a ballet that eschews innovation in favor of nostalgia. It’s a fun, light-hearted romp through a string of Sinatra classics, against a dark backdrop that alternates with stars and a crescent moon. While some of the vignettes are starting to feel a bit dated, costumes continue to hit the right mark, both nostalgic and contemporary. The men wore slacks, fedoras, and their vests matched the women’s diaphanous skirts and bodices in pastel colors, Highlights for me included “I Won’t Dance” (Tessa Barbour, Benjamin Warner), “Moonlight Serenade” (Jonathan Powell, Erica Felsch) and Robert Kretz’ solo, set to “That’s Life.” Mengjun Chen and Dustin James danced notably well through the program, and Valerie Harmon’s bright smile shone throughout. The entire ensemble dazzled in the closing, “New York, New York.” It was very signature Smuin; it made my throat tighten, as if Smuin’s spirit had descended to enjoy it along with us. At the ballet’s conclusion, several members of the audience leapt up to give the dancers a standing ovation, and you could tell it was equally for the memory of the man and his considerable legacy.

Dance Series 01 runs until Oct 7 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. It will also be presented in February and March 2018 in Mountain View and Carmel.

© 2017 Terez Rose