| Smuin Ballet in Petite Mort as part of their Spring Program. Photo by Scot Goodman
Smuin Ballet concludes its 2009/2010 season with their Spring Program, consisting of three very differently paced ballets â€” Songs of Mahler, Petite Mort and the world premiere of French Twist.
Beginning with Michael Smuinâ€™s Songs of Mahler, the ballet flows through a range of emotions from playful to dramatic and passionate. Set to music from â€śDes Knaben Wunderhornâ€ť (â€śThe Youthâ€™s Magic Hornâ€ť) and â€śSongs of a Wayfarerâ€ť by Gustav Mahler, Songs of Mahler demands a mastery of classical ballet techniques and a keen comprehension of lyrical dramatic texture â€” a clear example of Smuinâ€™s philosophy of merging the diverse vocabularies of classical ballet with those of contemporary dance. Costumes by Sandra Woodall add to the lyrical, visual smorgasbord of the piece.
One of the more annoying signatures of the work, however, is the use of gestural movements that accent forte moments in the music. As well executed as they are, these hokey-pokey â€śsawings of the airâ€ť (whether by arm or leg) have the annoying effect of insulting the audienceâ€™s visual and aural intelligence. The striking of poses at the end of too many segments also becomes equally predictable to the point of questioning the late choreographerâ€™s concept of dance. Is it not a moving art as opposed to one that stops to freeze-frame stationery pictures? Or has someone misinterpreted his original design?
Marking a significant collaboration for the company is European choreographer JirĂ KyliĂˇnâ€™s Petite Mort. For many years KyliĂˇn has been the driving force behind Nederlands Dans Theater. His imagination is strong in this sensual pairing of six men and six women with six fencing foils set to two of Mozartâ€™s finest piano concerti. While the women are minimally clad in flesh colored corsets and short knickers, the bare-chested men wear satin striped similarly toned tight shorts (costumes by Joke Visser). And the effect is exhilarating. The dance begins dramatically with the sharp unnerving sound of the men loudly swishing their foils through the air followed by parrying â€” all the while observed upstage by the chorus of female dancers who soon replace the weapons. Are these men the unarmored, unprotected soldiers of war or perhaps their still-fighting vulnerable spirits? The second section continues with a variety of partnering among the couples with some of the most inventive use of limbs imaginable. A visually dramatic moment occurs when the six women glide onstage clad in stiff black widowsâ€™ weeds on wheels. When they step away from their free-standing costumes, the effect immediately calls to mind our local treasured choreographer Joe Goodeâ€™s brilliant use of such a device in last seasonâ€™s sold-out Traveling Light at the Mint (happily returning in July). Rife with symbolism, KyliĂˇn also takes choreography beyond the physical in Petite Mort with its grace and inventiveness in which aggression, sexuality, vulnerability, tenderness and harmony all play a part.
The program concludes with choreographer Ma Congâ€™s world premiere of the fast-and-flirtatious piece French Twist, set to five fabulous musical selections (some electronic) by French composer Hugues Le Bars. Itâ€™s a quirky work in black-and-white tones (costumes also by Ma Cong) and accented by angular arms and flexed feet. To a sultry and mysterious waltz, Congâ€™s choreography has dancers sliding across the floor, through legs and around chairs, and manipulating each other like marionettes at breakneck speed. The women especially get tossed like baggage, landing safely in the arms of their attentive partners. There is also a strong tendency to illustrate musical moments with physical gesture in French Twist, but the technique is far more suitable to its fast-paced cartoon-like nature than in the more languorous Mahler. As for the dancers in the entire program, they all performed stunningly and with great precision.
Smuin Balletâ€™s Spring Program continues until May 16 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco. It then reprises until June 5 at Walnut Creek, Cupertino and Carmel. For tickets ($18, $41 and $56) and info, call (415) 978-2787 or at smuinballet.org.