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Review Journal, 5-18: From Indelible Lightness to Gravity
Smuin Loses the Thread; Curtis & Company Weave
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Tsao
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The
words on Nikos Kazantzakis's grave read: "I expect nothing, I fear
nothing, I am free." I should have remembered them before going
to see Smuin Ballets/SF at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater
on Tuesday, May 11. Last season, choreographer Michael Smuin created
"Zorro", a truly delightful entertainment with very
high production values. Even though I generally don't go in for
that type of dance, I did enjoy it immensely. So I figured that
Smuin's tenth anniversary retrospective would at least be well put
together, and there would be something I would enjoy.
Disappointment is the
word to describe my reaction to the evening's attempt to show an
entire decade of this company from its inception through its development
until now. Despite some excellent performances by several of the
dancers and the premiere of a new work by company member Amy Seiwert,
the lack of a connecting thread weaving its way through the program
or some kind of thematic glue for the various sections left me feeling
like I was watching the visual version of an oldies radio station.
That can be fun sometimes, bouncing from one thing to the next,
but since the show was supposed to be about a very specific topic,
ten years of this particular troupe, both the audience and the company
deserved a more fitting tribute, something at least as well crafted
I was a bit disoriented
when the order of the dances didn't match the printed program and
would have appreciated an insert with the actual order and casting.
The interpolation of video clips from past performances of pieces
that weren't being performed live was not as smooth as it could
have been and some clips with low resolution, resulting in pixilation,
were distracting. I would have preferred fewer clips, of higher
On the positive side,
I was happy to see Erin Yarborough and Gianna Davy migrate over
the bay from the Oakland Ballet, bringing their warm personalities
to the roster. And how satisfying to note that Pedro Gamino has
grown so much stronger technically and artistically over the past
few seasons that I barely recognized him. I was particularly taken
with Vanessa Thiessen's passion in "No Vivire," from "Dances with
Songs." David Strobbe and John DeSerio displayed an easy intimacy
in "Una Lagrimita," a duet for two men from "Tango Palace." The
highlight for me was "Chalita/Puppet Tango" from "Frankie and Johnny."
Cleverly choreographed by Smuin and perfectly costumed by Sandra
Woodall, this illusion of a couple dancing a tango was flawlessly
executed, single-handed and single-footedly, by Shannon Hurlburt.
He was dressed with one leg in half a pair of trousers and the other
leg, wearing a high-heeled shoe, emerged from a dress. He held his
partner's torso but let her lean back and toss her head.
I also applaud Smuin's
vote of confidence in Seiwert. Letting this emerging choreographer
set a piece on his company is both generous and encouraging. "Short
Ride," to music by John Adams, with costumes designed by Mario Alonzo
and lighting by Brian Jones, was well danced by five couples and
showed Seiwert's craftsmanship and her inventiveness to great advantage.
Then there is the opposite end of the dance spectrum. Gravity Physical
Theater/Jess Curtis presented an evening of new works and works
in progress by several choreographers at 848 Community Space, which
I saw this past Saturday. Curtis's "Fallen" from 2002 won the First
Fringe Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an Izzie (Isadora
Duncan Dance Award) for company performance and an Izzie nomination
for choreography. Since it is also one of my favorite pieces, I
made a big effort to keep my expectations in check, though the publicity
and press release enticed me with such blurbs as, "Curtis references
and cites numerous works of contemporary dance performance and critical
theory examining the ownership, control and contextualization of
our bodies and the creation of meaning involved in their representation"
and "(no one turned away for lack of understanding French post-modernism.)"
On the mere strength of reading those phrases, I knew that I needed
to be mentally alert and ready to laugh before I hit the theater.
The first half of the
evening consisted of five pieces. "#1" and "#2" (excerpts of work
in progress) by Benjamin Levy were merely all right, looking rather
generic in the contact improvisation-influenced modern dance way.
"Excerpted," choreographed and danced by Rachel Lincoln and Mark
Stuver began as a gestural dialogue between a man and woman. By
turns witty and poignant, the piece evolved into more of a real
dance employing some intelligent contact improvisation-influenced
phrases. The best of the five were "The way to disappear (coats)"
and "The way to disappear (shoes)." The first of these, co-created
and performed by Leslie Seiters and Rachel Lincoln, had the two
women wearing jackets that were suspended by ropes from the ceiling,
attached at the shoulders. They hung and spun and partnered each
other. It was quite remarkable to see how inventive choreographers
can be with the simplest of props. The second, directed by Seiters
and performed by collaborators Seiters and Stuver, had an almost
Bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet theater feel to it. A man and
a woman each held one of a pair of shoes, and manipulated them so
that they appeared to be moving of their own volition. Later the
shoes were stationary while the dancers took turns stepping into
them and then lifting each other out of them and slowly being set
"Rachel Lincoln," a
title complete with a footnote and a copyright symbol and a premiere
from Curtis which he performed with Lincoln, is a piece I would
like to see again. Because it was so complex and thought-provoking,
I wanted more time to absorb and reflect on it. Curtis handed out
a sheet of footnotes immediately before the piece started and the
references on it correlated to either readings or physical images/movement
phrases. These were then labeled with footnote numbers on cards
that the dancers flipped over, held up or stuck to the wall, as
the piece proceeded. In trying to explore the philosophical aspects
of meaning, Curtis ended up at the same time making fun of the seriousness
and absurdity of that exploration. Early on, when he spoke a few
lines in French and I was one of just a few laughing, I realized
that the discourse was beyond most of the audience's experience.
Amazingly, it turned out that everyone enjoyed it in spite of not
knowing what was referring to what. So I now ask the question, "If
the audience is already interested without knowing most of the references,
are the footnotes even necessary?" When I spoke to Curtis over lunch
on Monday, he compared the internal process of viewing this piece
to the serious reading and explication of a poem, where it is necessary
to look up words in the dictionary and follow up literary references,
to read and reread it until you truly understand it and can see
beneath the surface to the deeper facets. All forms of art can be
more rewarding when you are willing to invest more time and effort
in understanding them.
The next morning, while
reading P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves and the Impending Doom" over breakfast,
I came across the following dialogue between Bertie Wooster and
Jeeves, which points up yet again that there is nothing new under
the sun and that some very apropos things come out of the oddest
"Jeeves, have you ever
pondered on Life?"
"From time to time,
sir, in my leisure moments."
"Grim, isn't it, what?"
"I mean to say, the
difference between things as they look and things as they are."
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