The Smuin Ballet’s current season, Spring Bouquet, has one remarkable flower at its center. The ballet’s title, Petal, hardly does it justice in this metaphor since the work is far beyond the sum of its botanical parts. Helen Pickett originally created it for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2008 and now this company is giving the West Coast premiere.
When the curtain rises, the stage is saturated with bright yellow light. Fabric panels on both sides and across the back define the visual limits of the space. The four women and four men dance like they are from an entirely different company as they are swept up by Pickett’s steps. Several aspects of her work set it apart from what I call generic contemporary ballet choreography, by which I mean – the watered down Forsythe/Kylián-influenced steps, the contorted partnering, and the frequent lack of meaning that are so prevalent in newly-minted work these days. Instead, even though her vocabulary isn’t particularly radical, Pickett is so concise in the way she shapes her movement phrases that the result is one where absolute clarity reigns. She also creates a true sense of community among the dancers as some of them, often sitting on the sidelines, watch the others dance. Moving groups on and off stage with magical stealth allows her to modulate the momentum, giving it a seamless ebb and flow. Pickett uses the canvas of the stage very astutely by avoiding too much symmetry; for example, balancing two dancers on one side against three upstage on the opposite side while others dance in the center.
The dancers are clearly thrilled to be riding these choreographic waves. John Speed Orr and Christian Squires are particularly noteworthy, while Jane Rehm reveals new facets of her talent as she partners with Jonathan Dummar. Both Erin Yarbrough and Dummar abandon themselves completely to the movement and carry the viewers along with them. The only element that is a bit off is the women’s costume design by Nete Joseph. The pale yellow sleeveless, backless, leotards with split-bodice detailing are unflattering. The fabric seems to be a trifle too loose and, with the bare legs, makes for an unsleek silhouette. The men, on the other hand, are handsomely turned out in shiny blue-green lycra tights.
The evening opens with Michael Smuin’s Chants d’Auvergne which debuted in 1999. Although well-danced by the entire cast, there isn’t much substance to this lightweight confection choreographed to Joseph Canteloube’s music based on French folk songs and sung in the Occitan language. Yarbrough, Dummar and Robin Semmelhack bring lovely poetic and playful interpretations to all their portions of the ballet.
Darrell Grand Moultrie choreographed the closing piece, Jazzin’. He made it for the Sacramento Ballet in 2012 and it was set here by Lynlee Towne. Accompanied by an assortment of jazz classics, this piece exudes a Broadway style that fits in well with much of the company’s repertoire. The dancers have fun despite the clichés and the audience is excited by all the exuberance. A better program order would be to open with this crowd-pleaser, followed by the more lyrical Chants d’Auvergne, and closing on the high note of Petal.
The Smuin Ballet continues to be on a roll in bringing exciting new work to San Francisco. Last fall they danced Adam Hougland’s Cold Virtues, now they are performing Pickett’s Petal, and in the fall season they will show Jiří Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land. Let’s hope they can keep up this new programming trend well into the future.
Smuin Ballet continues their spring season with five more performances: Thursday, May 16 thru Sunday, May 19.