Smuin Debuts Rollicking Garrett Ammon Work
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue—that was Stanton Welch’s "Indigo," as presented in its West Coast premiere last Friday by Smuin in the company’s season opener. The program repeats Sept. 29 through Oct. 2 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco, then again in March of next year in Mountain View and Carmel.
Performed last weekend at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Welch’s 1999 ballet falls neatly into the “borrowed” category since he originally set it on the Houston Ballet, where he is now artistic director.
Eight of the Smuin dancers (the company shortened its name from Smuin Ballet earlier this year), who performed it with the troupe’s trademark high energy, attacked its devilishly complex choreography with focus and precision. As one dancer remarked in the lobby afterward, “You have to dance perfectly, because if you make one mistake it’s hard to catch up again.”
In Welch’s exploration of the nature of love four couples arrive, separate, join up with other partners and eventually reunite. The score—two Vivaldi cello concertos (the first in B minor, RV 424, and the second in G minor, RV 416)—inspired Welch’s non-stop footwork, which verges on the frenetic. But his arbitrary embellishments—quirky arms, bobbling heads—were unnecessary distractions. Choreographers write body language, and it must be chosen judiciously since every movement conveys a meaning, intended or not.
Robert Kretz managed to make Welch’s movements his own, finding a way to be expressive while the rest of ballet swirled around him. With time, the other dancers will perhaps find their own ways, as well.
To commemorate the 15th anniversary of the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the company danced "Stabat Mater," created by its late founder-choreographer, Michael Smuin. Of this work he noted, “When I found myself playing the Dvorak Stabat Mater over and over, I realized that I had found my response to all the death and pain of those terrible days.”
This new revival ranks as the best I have seen since the 2002 premiere, thanks in large part to Kretz’s deeply emotive dancing. His exemplary partnering skills went well beyond the technical, and after a muted start Erica Chipp joined him in an equally expressive interpretation. Following the pumped up adrenaline of "Indigo," "Stabat Mater" was a refreshing return to longer lines and profoundly emotive movement.
The world premiere of Garrett Ammon’s "Madness, Rack, and Honey" finished off the evening with a bit of fun. In his program notes Ammon writes, “…I can say with a relative degree of certainty that the meaning of any of this will remain frustratingly elusive.” Subtitled “a poem in three movements,” "Madness, Rack, and Honey" takes its name from the collected lectures of poet Mary Ruefle.
Dancer Erica Felsch, whose style is usually understated elegance, put on a bright new comedic face for "Madness," and the rest of the 10-member cast joined her in this rollicking, slapstick vaudeville-esque caper.
The build of the long-limbed Valerie Harmon contrasts with the shorter, more compact look of the other Smuin women in this piece, and Harmon played the discrepancy for all it was worth, nailing the bit with a knowing smile. Cassandra Carpenter’s fanciful costumes, in black, white and many shades of gray, were the perfect accessories.
The music—Mozart’s "Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K 364"—at times worked at cross purposes with the dancers, being a touch too subdued. Had their really quick movements been danced to a slow, lugubrious score, it could have been hilariously incongruous. As presented it just missed the mark. The choreography began to feel repetitive, and the length of each movement stretched the underlying concept too thin.
But don’t tell the dancers; they were having an infectious good time.
Smuin presenting Dance Series 01 with "Indigo," "Stabat Mater" and "Madness, Rack, and Honey."
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 29-30, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 1, 2 p.m. Oct. 2
Where: Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St, San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$68; 415-912-1899; www.smuinballet.org