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One for the Money

A new ballet about Elvis Presley by the ubiquitous Annabelle Lopez Ochoa promised to be a perfect fit for San Francisco’s Smuin Contemporary Ballet; after all, company founder Michael Smuin (1938-2007) never met a pop song he couldn’t craft into a crowd-pleasing ballet ditty. The surprising thing about Ochoa’s “Tupelo Tornado,” though, is that it isn’t any fun.

Performance

Smuin Contemporary Ballet Dance Series 2: works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Michael Smuin, Amy Seiwert and Brennan Wall

Place

Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, CA, May 24, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

Smuin in “Tupelo Tornado” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Chris Hardy

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Heads up, New Yorkers: This visually inventive but emotionally dirge-like exploration of the King’s fame-stunted psyche is on its way to the Joyce Theater in July, when happily the Smuin dancers will also bring more rewarding rep by Val Caniparoli and new artistic director Amy Seiwert. In the meantime, as Ochoa’s sad portrayal of Elvis’s loneliness made its way around the Bay Area (after “Tupelo Tornado’s” premiere in San Francisco, I caught it in the suburb of Walnut Creek), what struck me most is how loyal the local Smuin audience has become. The energy in the auditorium during this closing ballet was low, but come curtain the applause was warm. Seiwert is inheriting the directorship of a well-established company whose patrons expect a few bon bons but also support challenging risks.

And the risk of “Tupelo Tornado” did bring some pleasures. Ochoa, Belgian-Colombian by birth and residing in Amsterdam, is presumably less saturated in Elvis lore than Americans; her curiosity about his downfall feels sincere. She’s also too smart to go down the literal bio-pic road; instead, the ballet starts as a meta-commentary on the perils of allowing one’s talents to be packaged for mass consumption. A spotlight searches the closed curtains for a star and lands on . . . a tiny plastic Elvis bobblehead doll. When our Elvis figure Brandon Alexander takes the stage, he’s already trapped with a television around his cranium, and his eyes are those of a crazed, lost soul.

Smuin in “Tupelo Tornado” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Chris Hardy

Rather than stitch together Elvis hits, Ochoa worked with sound designer Jake Rodriguez to devise a score stitching snippets of his singing into a driving electronic soundscape punctuated with interviews about him. There’s nothing revelatory in the soundbites, but the score does touch on Presley’s appropriation of Black music artists, and calls out the names of talents he channeled without credit: Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Joe Brown. Meanwhile, rather than blue suede shoes, the 13-member ensemble is dressed in electric blue gloves (sexy costume design by Susan Roemer), and stomp around a cleverly wheel-able TV sound stage (scenic work by Alexander V. Nichols).

The ensemble movement certainly takes the Smuin dancers out of their usual comfort zone as they swing their heads and gyrate, and I love a good hair-whipping dance, but the choreography in this vein mostly recycles moves you might see in a cardio exercise class. Elvis’s deep connection to gospel music is a thread, but the catharsis is overplayed with Jace Pauly’s “Amazing Grace” solo in a white leather jacket streaming angel-wing fringe. “Tupelo Tornado” ends with a balletic pas de deux for Tessa Barbour and Dominic Barrett to “Love Me Tender.” Here as throughout the ballet, the point is driven home: How sad that despite the public adoration, Elvis couldn’t believe anyone really loved him. This is the problem with ballets about famous real people (and I think it’s a problem with Ochoa’s more successful “Broken Wings,” too, about Frida Kahlo): You need an angle on the character to drive the piece, but you have to spend that insight upfront, and then there’s nowhere for the ballet to go.    

Smuin in “Broken Open” by Amy Seiwert. Photograph by Chris Hardy

This program started with Smuin’s “Starshadows,” from 1998, to Ravel. The lighting design by the late Sara Linnie Slocum is magical. The costume design, by Lynn Morton, is a reminder that Michael Smuin once toured the country in a nightclub act he choreographed for his wife. Derriere coverage is cut in the least tasteful way possible. Acrobatic partnering sends the dancers into backbends that align the women’s buttocks with the men’s faces. The post-coital finish with all three couples spooning on the floor is surprisingly touching. Is re-costuming the ballet to bring it out of the late ‘90s “Showgirls”/”Striptease” aesthetic an option?

The middle of this program, fortunately, was the company at its finest. Seiwert’s lyrical “Broken Open,” to string music by Julia Kent, is a bit long (six movements) but full of lovely, inventive partnering. A duet between Maggie Carey and Alexander was revelatory—Carey is usually typecast into cutesy roles that oblige her to play up her dimples, but here she was all pathos and elegance. Yuri Rogers’ clean technique stood out in a trio for three men.

Smuin in “Untwine” by Brennan Wall. Photograph by Chris Hardy

Even more impressive than “Broken Open” was “Untwine,” an early choreographic foray by company member Brennan Wall set to three sections of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” as “recomposed” by Steve Reich. (The same music Crystal Pite used for her monumental “The Seasons’ Canon.”) Partnered by Alexander, Cassidy Isaacson slid a good three feet, her hair flying, and pushed up to pointe. Supported by just a hand-hold, she twirled with her feet on half-pointe, her knees near the floor. Wall’s formal boldness and rigor in this duet then extended into a consistently interesting ensemble section with three other couples.

Twenty years ago, Seiwert got some of her early choreographic chances in just this way while a company member at Smuin. Wall clearly has the promise for similar development—how exciting to think her emerging voice could be part of the company’s next chapter.   

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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