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Twists and Turns

Smuin is an unusual company. It was founded by former San Francisco Ballet co-director Michael Smuin in 1994, about a decade after San Francisco Ballet’s board declined to name him the company’s next director. For its first fifteen years, the new eponymous troupe mainly danced Smuin’s over-the-top theatrical spectacles, like “Zorro!” and “Carmina Burana.” When Smuin died suddenly in 2007, his longtime muse Celia Fushille became artistic director. She has continued to feed the audience the hammier Smuin spectacles they love, but she has also considerably stretched the repertory with the addition of works by Trey McIntyre, Stanton Welch, and James Kudelka. The latest addition to this roster, after two years of Covid delay, is Cuban choreographer Osnel Delgado. His premiere “The Turntable” challenged both the Smuin dancers and their audience, on a program that suggests the company’s greatest opportunity may lie in developing a more spontaneous relationship to music.

Performance

Smuin: “Dance Series 1”

Place

Cowell Theater, San Francisco, CA, September 23, 2022

Words

Rachel Howard

Terez Dean Orr and Tessa Barbour in Osnel Delgado's “The Turntable” for Smuin. Photograph by Chris Hardy

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“The Turntable” quite literally revolves around a spinning disc, upon which Tessa Barbour frequently stands, dressed in a short white pleated skirt. The ensemble swirls about, wearing a variety of street clothes in a grey palette. (The “costume concept” is attributed to Delgado, and no designer is credited.) You keep thinking some kind of escalating storyline will emerge, but although various groups of men do pull Barbour off the turntable and twist her into throes of physical ecstasy, the emotional movement of the piece seems to whirl in circles just like that record player.

Smuin artists Tessa Barbour and João Sampaio in Osnel Delgado's “The Turntable.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

The music, ranging from re-mixed Kronos Quartet to a bolero by Trio Los Panchos leader Alfred Gil, is inter-stitched with the sound of a scratchy record, and is surprisingly sluggish and sad for the first third. The movement, too, is less lively than one might expect. Delgado is the co-founder of Malpaso Dance Company, known for its dancers’ virtuosic fluidity, but in this work (or on Smuin’s dancers?) the movement language feels muted. There’s a challenge here, too, in how Delgado has oriented all the action to the center (he has said in an interview that this work would best be viewed in the round), yet Smuin has premiered “The Turntable” on a small proscenium stage with poor sightlines. The gain for the company, and a not inconsiderable one, was that the dancers did seem to be intensely present to one another, and to be relishing dancing authentic interactions rather than mugging for the audience.

Smuin artist Tessa Barbour in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Requiem for a Rose." Photograph by Chris Hardy

As the middle offering of this repertory slate, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Requiem for a Rose” made a repeat appearance, and indeed felt like a retread. The ballet is all concept and costumes—a woman (Barbour again) flails about to the sound of a heartbeat with a rose in her mouth, representing romantic passion, until a large ensemble, in unisex flowing red skirts and bare tops (well, the women wear nude leotards) partner each other to the adagio of Schubert’s String Quintet in C, representing cooler, mature love. This is, of course, gorgeous, infinitely rich music—one can easily imagine Mark Morris making a masterpiece of it—but in Ochoa’s hands, it’s little more than sonic wallpaper. Terez Dean Orr had the best lines and control in the classical partnering.

Smuin in Rex Wheeler's “Take Five.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

Rex Wheeler’s “Take Five,” to Dave Brubeck’s music, opened the program with the strongest Smuin-esque flavor, the dancers seeming to have practiced their winks and smirks to coordinate on the beat with the hip-bumps and jetés. It starts promisingly with a clip from a Brubeck interview about the jazz great’s rhythmic influences, and group choreography that lets the men show their extensions (John Speed Orr, Yuri Rogers, and Joao Sampaio were the standouts.) But then comes that music-as-wallpaper problem again. A duet to the standard “Memories of You” between the wonderfully sensuous Cassidy Isaacson and the gallant Brandon Alexander has little relationship to either the melody or the (unsung) lyrics, and trades in trite air-kisses just when the larger work could use a more serious climactic pas de deux (something like “I Can Dream, Can’t I” in Paul Taylor’s “Company B.”) When the ensemble returns, an already well-trod joke of having the women play their hands against a man like he’s a piano returns, and doesn’t yield more laughs on the repeat.

The Cowell was not a flattering theater for this proscenium-presentational razzle-dazzle. No doubt the company was forced there because most San Francisco venues are too large for covid-recovery sized audiences. So why not program to the circumstances? What would happen if Smuin commissioned a more intimate dance to live music, perhaps with an onstage piano/strings duo, or quartet? What might change if the hard-working Smuin dancers got to be in the moment with the music, rather than pushing “play” on the soundtrack and their smiles?

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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