Starshadows, No Vivire, Homeless, Cold Virtues, Oh Inverted World
San Francisco, Palace of Fine Arts Theater
6 October 2012
In the past five and a half years since Smuin Ballet’s founder and raison d’etre, Michael Smuin, passed away, and despite the tremendous turnover of dancers (only three out of sixteen worked with Smuin himself) one of the most remarkable aspects of this company is its strong sense of ensemble. I don’t just mean doing the steps on the music in perfect synchronisation, but rather that these women and men work together using all their collective artistic faculties. With their bodies they make a ballet appear as a complete illustration of the choreographer’s intentions, not merely assembling jigsaw puzzle pieces to look like the picture on the box. I believe that the current dancers have greater technical proficiency and more years of stage experience than previous members , and with those elements, Ballet Master Amy London’s avid quest toward perfection can finally be realised.
The company’s premiere of Adam Hougland’s “Cold Virtues” is a terrific example of the ensemble becoming far more than a background for the four lead dancers. The ballet was originally created for the Louisville Ballet in 2003 to the Philip Glass Violin Concerto and is a very welcome addition to Smuin Ballet’s repertoire. Staged here by Helen Daigle with costumes by Marion Williams, courtesy of the Louisville Ballet, “Cold Virtues” is an opportunity for the cast to stretch themselves in new directions – choreographically, stylistically, emotionally – with very positive results.
Hougland develops his own vocabulary, based both in ballet and Limon-esque modern, then constructs phrases which, when woven together, actually communicate the concept/narrative. That, in my opinion, is what well-crafted choreography should do, yet how seldom do we get to see it. Jane Rehm is chillingly ruthless as the main character and has emerged as one of the strongest women in company in contemporary pieces. Jonathan Mangosing, a sharply-defined accomplice for her, mirrors her treachery and Erin Yarbrough with John Speed Orr provide the susceptibly vulnerable counterparts to her heartless machinations. Orr has grown so much during the past two seasons, maturing from an exuberant, yet diamond-in-the-rough dancer, to a more thoughtful man with a broad range of emotions and a more nuanced way of moving. The ensemble is simply stunning in its ability to support the soloists and project its own unified voice.
The evening opened with three short pieces by Smuin. Starshadows should have been a romantic interlude for three couples to the second movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major. Sitting in the fourth row I find myself on the verge of a coughing fit due to the miasma of thick theatrical haze. The lighting is too rock-concert harsh to match the music. Most of the dancing lacks the soft tender quality one would hope for, though Yarbrough manages to exude some lyricism. The execution of the steps is fine, but perhaps not enough time for in-depth coaching is to blame for the lack of appropriate feeling. No Viviré suffers from the same problems, except what is missing is flamenco intensity and fire in this Spanish pastiche to music by the Gypsy Kings. Christian Squires offers redemption in Homeless. He melds execution and expression so seamlessly that he never allows my attention to waiver. I am glad these pieces come first. In the spring program the Smuin work was performed last after the two premieres and it definitely pulled down the arc of the show. It seems better to let the momentum of evolving from the past into the future propel our imaginations toward the real possibilities that will be shaping this company.
Trey McIntyre’s Oh, Inverted World is the perfect ending for the evening. A big success when it premiered two years ago, it was also a huge hit during the company’s New York run at the Joyce Theater this past August. The four women (Rehm, Yarbrough, Susan Roemer and Robin Semmelhack) and an equal number of men (Mangosing, Orr, Squires and Jonathan Powell) dance their way through all permutations and combinations – the entire cast, a duet, a male quartet, mixed doubles, a trio. Their obvious glee seems the antidote for the dramatic intensity of Cold Virtues. That doesn’t mean they cancel each other out; quite the contrary, it only increases the worth of both ballets in the repertoire.