Smuin Ballet offers mixed program, with mixed results, as Sarasota Ballet’s guest

The first ballet proves the best of four

The Smuin Ballet is based in San Francisco. Image from the website
The Smuin Ballet is based in San Francisco. Image from the website

The Sarasota Ballet has resumed an older policy of inviting a guest company to share its annual season, and while this is an opportunity to discover what is happening in other dance companies in the country, there is a temptation to compare rather than appreciate differences.

This year’s guest, the little known Smuin Ballet (named after Michael Smuin, the late founder) from San Francisco, revealed a surprising freshness in the unassuming physicality of its dancers and in their bounding energy. The programs were held at the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 26-28.

French Twist, a quirky ballet by Ma Cong —resident choreographer of the Tulsa Ballet — is set to an intriguing score by Hugues le Bars. Not only did it open the evening’s program, but it also was the most successful of the four works presented. The eight dancers, all trained in both classical ballet and contemporary dance, appeared to be figures dangling from unseen strings as they punched the air with their fists, legs and arms and rolled their heads and torsos before rushing around in a frantic nonstop response to the smoky-voiced, sultry French lyrics.

Solos, couples and trios — as well as jumps and lifts — were all performed at breakneck speed, and often with the dancers’ arms and knees oddly bent as if the dancers were grasshoppers ready to spring. In one instance — after an invigorating, complicated trio requiring trust in pretzel-bending lifts — Mengjun Chen turned to her two partners and gently pushed each to the ground. Though this sounds sinister, it was done with a light touch and reflected the zany fun of French Twist.

Next up: Michael Smuin created Bouquet, an intimate classical ballet, in 1981. Set to three melancholy piano concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich it explores aspects of love.

Three people (Jonathan Powell, Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Dustin James) related to a muse (Mengjun Chen) who appeared as if in a dream, dancing with each of the men, without any meaningful connection. Perhaps it was the quasi peasant costumes of the men — high boots and rose-colored over blouses — and Chen’s flowered headdress that created the impression of an uninspiring “neverland” of a romantic dream where love is fleeting.

However, in the second section of Bouquet, Susan Roemer and Robert Moore saved the ballet in a gentle pas de deux of discovery and eloquent lifts, performed with the ease and sincerity one would expect of two lovers living in a Garden of Eden.

There were two other ballets on the program, and I was not impressed by either. Maslow, choreographed by Smuin Ballet dancer Ben Needham-Wood, was inspired by psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. Creating a movement narrative from this theory would be a daunting task for the most experienced choreographer, but Needham-Wood dove in with a beginner’s response to the challenge. He approached it by creating a work that uses the overly obvious conceit of exploring changes in an individual’s physical movements as the person goes through the process of becoming his true self. It is essentially a simplistic response to a conundrum, but an ambitious start to a career as a choreographer.

On the other hand, Broken Open, by Amy Seilwert — the Smuin Company’s choreographer — might benefit from editing, as there was a lot of hard work and a great deal of repetitious choreography that had little or no connection to the music.