There are a few privileges that come with the role of dance critic. One that is not so obvious, but very gratifying, is watching companies start, develop, and come into their own. If you remain in one locale long enough, you see large companies grow more magisterial, and small ones pop up on the horizon, fall away, or survive and aggregate dancers, repertoire, audiences, endowment, and heft. Observing this process is the perk that I value above all others. The companies can begin to act like siblings, mugging for attention, or quietly positioning themselves for recognition within the local dance family and larger national and international community. This week, I was able to see programs offered by two such San Francisco Bay Area companies: Smuin Ballet and Diablo Ballet.
Diablo Ballet, under the artistic direction of Lauren Jonas, has been around for more than two decades, having survived financial crises and changes in artistic leadership, to become a recognized cultural force in the community. It has a season at the Dean Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, tours abroad, offers presentations at public libraries and community centers, and its PEEK school outreach program famously brings hundreds of children into the world of ballet for the first time to see performances, and create choreography for the company’s dancers. Several years ago, it added another performance module: “Inside the Dancers’ Studio,” an intimate cabaret-style interface with East Bay audiences.
With the company’s current size at seven, the three men and three women dancers fit snuggly onto the small stage at the Shadelands Arts Center, where on May 4, they were surrounded by subscribers seated at tables, and an audience of ballet students, long-time fans, and others who traveled across bridges and through tunnels to see the company’s evening of short pieces.
The program opened with Behind Doors, by company member David Fonnegra and danced by Edward Stegge. It was an occasional dream sequence set to Debussy’s Clair de Lune that Stegge danced in segments during each pause between works on the program. It made for a centering thread that connected the programmed pieces, as it “re-set” the audience’s attention and sense of expectation. Stegge’s theatrical stage presence made him an excellent choice for the evening’s somnambulant steward.
An audience pleaser was the dramatic lovers’ quarrel piece, Red Tea, by ODC’s veteran choreographer, KT Nelson, to music by Max Richter. While a difficult theme to develop in a short work, and obscured slightly by a set that consisted of two planters holding fair-sized ferns, the piece presented a couple danced by Rosselyn Ramírez and Derek Sakakura, who were playing out the anger in their relationship through the sensual medium of their bodies. A compelling moment arrived when they faced one another and seemed to seek what was in the other’s heart by touching each other at that place, each taking a tactile pulse of the other in order to connect with the feelings of their antagonist, even if that antagonist was at times the one within. Ramírez alternated between fire and ice, and shows potential for becoming the company’s next Carmen. Sakakura propelled her through circles of lifts, shaping the piece with his clean partnering.
Hiromi Yamazaki and Robert Dekkers delighted with a pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Tarantella, staged by Christopher Stowell. Dekkers dispatches clean, fast footwork while sharing heartfelt buoyancy that he punctuates with another partner: his tambourine! Yamazaki’s spirited en dehors turns and clean diagonals intersect propitiously with the music and Dekkers’ enthusiasm for the challenging footwork.
Mayo Sugano dressed in a royal blue evening gown and David Fonnegra in tie and tails, danced the bistro number Shall We Dance by Erin Leedom. Fonnegra was dapper and dashing as he led and lifted the confident Sugano through familiar melodies by Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart, played by a combo directed by Greg Sudmeier. In the post performance encounter with the dancers, we learned that Sugano came to the rescue of the piece: Quick thinking led her to direct Fonnegra to execute a brilliant “save” ending when the musicians dropped an important phrase in the arrangement. The audience was none the wiser, and Sugano demonstrated as she has many times before, that she is the consummate professional.
The evening’s closer and audience favorite by dancer Robert Dekkers was aptly named Happy Ending. The dancers were dressed in black and white, with bubble gum color accents (costumes by Christian Squires) as they variously bounced off the back wall upstage and skittered downstage and then bounded back again. Sakakura and Fonnegra sandwich Ramírez in a lift, and then she opts out and they are left embracing one another. Stegge and Ramírez drop to the floor like rag dolls, while others go contact improv with the wall, pushing off it with a raised leg to then jump waist high. The piece offers an assortment of euphoric snapshots danced to wind-up toy-inspired music by Pogo, and besides accomplishing the title’s stated goal, shows that Diablo Ballet has acquired not only a fine dancer in Dekkers, but also a choreographer of great promise.
Michael Smuin founded Smuin Ballet after a rich career during which he danced with American Ballet Theatre, in musical comedy on Broadway, was artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, and created choreography for stage and film. Smuin had a knack for gauging the tastes of the audiences he attracted, and was able to “sell it,” as they say in the theater; his was the name most people of a certain generation would associate with ballet in the Bay Area. The company is now under the direction of his closest collaborator, Celia Fushille, and under her direction its size has grown to 19. It has attracted dancers who began dancing with other larger companies, and have come to Smuin late in their careers, as well as a few new dancers with energy, but scant experience. Since Fushille took over the direction of the company, it has expanded its repertoire to show more and more works by choreographers other than Smuin, while continuing to keep his best work in front of the public.
The program I saw on April 29 brought these elements together in the spirit, if not the letter of Michael Smuin. Through was a jubilantly inventive piece by Ma Cong that used the fast infiltration of dancers and screened floor projections against changing panels to create a pocket ballet place and mood that transported the action far from the caucasiana of the Novellus Theater into what Eddie Izzard refers to tongue-in-cheek as the RTW (Rest Of The World). Quick steps-to-lifts raised the action above eye level, followed by sequenced profile leg lifts to African rhythms. The piece is an intriguing weave of color, sound and euphoria in a vocabulary all its own, and will make you look forward to more work by this choreographer.
Val Canaparoli’s Swipe brought the audience a generous slice of William Forsythe-like off balance pas de deux explorations introduced by hands over head signals. It is a work that could potentially be a game changer for the conservatively inclined audiences Smuin typically draws. For that to succeed, however, the dancers will have to step into it at a heightened level of mastery.
The program closed with Smuin’s Symphony of Psalms, which opens on a sumptuous set (designed by Rick Goodwin) of three enormous white papier-mâché frosting-like mound structures that suggest the pearly gates of heaven. These lift heavenward as women in white tutu and men in white turtleneck shirts with an appliqué across the front that unfortunately make them look ill fitting—emerge. They dance in the neo-classical style to a score by Stravinsky, and the piece, with its breathtaking moments, stands as a pedagogical demonstration that choreographers of Smuin’s generation knew how to marry steps to the music, and still leave audience members plenty of room to exercise their imaginations.
The dancers who stand out in this program are Erin Yarborough-Stewart, whose line is long and expressive, Shannon Hurlburt and Robin Cornwall, whose partnering is lush and vivid, Christian Squires and Jane Rehm, who erupt in a volcanic way, and Jonathan Powell, whose strong presence anchors the ensemble.