Swipe, Through, Symphony of Psalms
San Francisco, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Novellus Theater
2 May 2012
When the Smuin Ballet opened its spring season on April 26 in the Novellus Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, it was almost exactly five years since founder Michael Smuin died after collapsing while teaching company class. The company, grief-stricken, bravely danced that spring season, but it was unclear if the small troupe would find the means to survive. Enough of the key players – board of directors, dancers, and donors – pulled together and forged ahead. After beating the odds against preservation, of the current nineteen dancers, only three worked directly under Smuin as did the present artistic director, Celia Fushille. The repertoire has expanded during the last few seasons to include work by other choreographers, such as Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort and Trey McIntyre’s Oh, Inverted World, and the technical level of the company began to improve as more accomplished dancers were attracted to the growing artistic opportunities.
The evening opens with Val Caniparoli’s “Swipe“, set to portions of String Quartet No. 2 by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei) and remixes of the original score. The choreography for three women and four men, mostly modern with quick splashes of classical ballet, seems interesting at first. The constant mixing and matching up in the groupings of the dancers – full cast, trios, quartets, couples, solos – gives everyone a chance to shine. Overall, the current dancers are cleaner and stronger than in the past and are definitely in their element. Soon the formulaic choreography, without even the smallest variations, grows annoyingly predictable. Déjà vu is highly over-rated. Stylistically the choreography leans toward an automaton feeling, though it is unclear if that is Caniparoli’s intention. While most of the dancers do the equivalent of reciting poetry without much personal inflection, Jonathan Dummar is the poetry. He performs the steps in his unique voice, subtly shading the tilt of his head or épaulement, reaching beyond the physical limit of his arms and legs across space, hinting that these terpsichorean words mean more than you think.
Two years ago Ma Cong created his energetic and whimsical French Twist on this company and now he’s made a second work, “Through”. On many levels this piece is quite similar to the preceding Swipe, generic modern ballet performed with a lot of enthusiasm. I find out at the intermission that the programming suffered when Cong changed the music he wanted to use and that threw off the balance of the evening’s trajectory. But Through isn’t bad standing on its own if you erase all memory of the first ballet. The eight dancers look good and the piece does travel through different moods. The movement vocabulary is rather limited and lacking in musicality and subtlety. There is a pas de trois for two men and a woman that definitely has some gratifying moments.
Closing the program is Smuin’s “Symphony of Psalms” to the Stravinsky score of the same name. Despite a set that looks something akin to an iceberg filling the stage and pale blue and white costumes that suggest only cold, the dancers do a splendid job.
If you prefer ballet in a more intimate space with easily accessible choreography, energetically performed by dedicated dancers, as opposed to the enormous entrenched institutionalised company in the civic center neighborhood, you might want to check out Smuin Ballet which has come a long way from its original roots.
Performances of the spring program continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in Mt. View 5/23 through 5/27.