Serenade for Strings, Objects of Curiosity, Frankie & Johnny

Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, San Francisco, CA; October 10, 2014

Carmel Morgan

Sarah Nyfield and Robert Moore in 'Serenade for Strings'.  Photo Keith © Sutter

Sarah Nyfield and Robert Moore in ‘Serenade for Strings’.
Photo Keith © Sutter

I travel occasionally for my day job (hardly any dance critics are able to make a living solely by writing about dance). During my latest visit to San Francisco I was able to see Smuin Ballet for the second time. The first time, I was especially delighted to see some familiar faces – dancers I last had seen on stage with Ballet Memphis during my five years in West Tennessee. This time, I was pleased again to see that although some of them have left Smuin Ballet, one familiar face – Jonathan Powell – was still there. He looks exactly as I remember him from years ago. If you want to look young for as long as possible, be a ballet dancer!

This time, I was also delighted there was another Ballet Memphis connection. The choreographer of “Serenade for Strings” was Garrett Ammon, who left Memphis in 2007, at the same time I did. I adored Ammon and his wife Dawn Fay, as did all ballet fans in Memphis. Memphis’s loss was Denver’s gain. We knew Ammon was destined for bigger and better things, and indeed, he’s purportedly equally beloved in his new role as Artistic Director of Wonderbound
(formerly Ballet Nouveau Colorado).

I badly wanted to like “Serenade for Strings” because of that sweet spot Ammon still holds in my Memphis memories, but despite being primed to appreciate it, I didn’t. Yes, it was a bold move for him to choose the same Tchaikovsky music (Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48) that Balanchine used for “Serenade”. As you might guess, Ammon’s version departs significantly from Balanchine’s work, and as you might also guess, Balanchine’s choreography surpasses Ammon’s. I admired the effort of Ammon and the Smuin dancers, but the ballet fell flat.

That’s not to say there weren’t bright moments. I enjoyed some genuine surprises. For example, I recall watching a female dancer who when returned to the floor by her partner was pulled backward rather than propelled forward. This alteration in momentum was satisfyingly startling. I also liked the frequent sight of the women’s knees tucked up into their bodies as they were lifted. I sensed the strong influence of choreographer Trey McIntyre, with whom Ammon has closely worked. The women in “Serenade for Strings”, like in much of McIntyre’s choreography, seemed doll-like on occasion. They stood still and stiff sometimes. Even their costumes, a mostly white 1950s style dressed with a full skirt and a deep-v neckline (costume design by Rachael Kras), evoked images of Trey McIntyre pieces I’ve seen before. The women conspicuously wore slippers rather than pointe shoes.

“Serenade for Strings” is though burdened by an abundance of purposeful quirkiness that doesn’t flow with the music. I internally groaned at the number of times a dancer flouted a flexed foot. Enough with the in-your-face flexed feet, I thought! You can have a contemporary ballet without flexed feet sailing through the air, I promise. And the smiles of the dancers made it hard for me to know what the mood of the work was supposed to be – more lighthearted than serious, I guess?

Brian Mills’ lighting design (adapted by Michael Oesch with Ammon) confused me as well. The floor changes colors, sometimes flooded with vivid blue, then abruptly turning white. It was unnecessarily distracting.

Finally, I recognize that the choreography is challenging for the dancers. However, it was nearly impossible to discern when movement was supposed to be staggered and when the dancers simply were off in their timing. This resulted in the ballet looking somewhat contrived and messy, the opposite of Tchaikovsky’s soaringly perfect music. Thankfully, the duets were stronger than the ensemble sections.

Smuin Ballet dancers Jonathan Powell and Weston Krukow lift Erin Yarbrough in Amy Seiwert's 'Objects of Curiosity'.  Photo © Keith Sutter

Smuin Ballet dancers Jonathan Powell and Weston Krukow lift Erin Yarbrough in Amy Seiwert’s ‘Objects of Curiosity’.
Photo © Keith Sutter

Next on the program was “Objects of Curiosity”, a 2007 work for eight dancers by former Smuin dancer Amy Seiwert. It offered far more surprises. The music features the unusual pairing of Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso, combining Western and African musical traditions. The costumes, set, and lighting design provide a great deal of visual interest. Cassandra Carpenter’s costumes show thin stripes and curves of red, like trails of blood, against color blocks of gold and cream (kind of like the inside of a Cadbury cream egg, but with strokes of red). The women dance on pointe, which contributes to the sharpness of the piece. The original set and lighting design by Matthew Antaky deliver a sense of mystery and punctuation, and complement the rhythmic music and the choreography, beautifully. Altogether, the various elements transported the audience to a different world.

In the beginning, four male dancers move within individual rectangles of light. A large rectangle also floats above the center of the stage. Its texture morphs with the lighting making it appear alternately like riveted metal or a huge swath of leather. In contrast to “Serenade for Strings”, “Objects of Curiosity” felt at one with the music. Seiwert wisely takes advantage of stillness and slowness. One can see the music’s tensions played out in the movement of the dancers. Through sculptural shapes and angles and shadows and light, bodies and music meld. A theme emerged, I thought, of relationships and dependence. Grabbing their female partners’ hips, the male dancers steeply tilt toward them, faces down, as if they were planking on an incline. In one powerful moment, couples sway like tall reeds in a breeze, leaning in opposite directions. In another, the women cradle the heads of the men, who bend backward, like they were waiting for a shampoo at the salon. When the women move the support of their hands, the men remain deeply pitched, their backs elegantly arched.

Closing the program was the crowd-pleasing “Frankie & Johnny”, choreographed by the company’s founder, Michael Smuin. The ballet, which debuted in 1996, was a tribute and dedicated by Smuin to the inspirational Gene Kelly, who died that year. Had it not been for the program notes, I’d not have guessed that, but then again, the very theatrical nature of the work does lend itself to comparison with his larger-than-life stage presence.

Eduardo Permuy  and Jo-Ann Sundermeier in Michael Smuin's 'Frankie & Johnny'.  Photo © Keith Sutter

Eduardo Permuy and Jo-Ann Sundermeier in Michael Smuin’s ‘Frankie & Johnny’.
Photo © Keith Sutter

There is nothing small or subtle about “Frankie & Johnny”. It’s an over-the-top trip to Cuba – to passion, to spectacle. And it’s a ton of fun, if you’re in the right mood. But I can see why some ballet fans might turn their noses up in distaste at it. The ballet doesn’t highlight superb classical skills. It’s more of a slobbering Saint Bernard than a poodle fresh from the groomer. But, oh how lovable it is if you give it a chance!

There’s a lot to love, from the glitzy colorful costumes by Sandra Woodall to the playful set by Douglas Schmidt (the bar in the final scene, as if drawn in perspective, is far bigger at it reaches toward the audience than it is at the other end, making it appear utterly cartoonish), to the spicy Latin music, to the spirited characters and the climactic ending. Hollywood isn’t known for presenting meek stories, and Smuin isn’t known for choreographic restraint. In his hands, the story of the vengeful wronged lover grows easily into a tale fit for the big screen.

The work begins with the title “Frankie & Johnny” sprawled across a scrim calling forth the start of a movie. The message is loud and clear: the dancing is going to focus more on drama and less on the tender unfurling of limbs.

Sure enough, Smuin Ballet’s dancers mamboed more than they executed movements they learned in years of ballet classes. There was a riotously funny tango by Jonathan Powell, who danced with himself, sort of. One of his legs was outfitted to be that of a woman, with a Barbie-like blonde doll clinging to one side of his upper body to complete his partner. Dancing this way doesn’t call for the same talent as doing multiple barrel turns, but it takes talent nonetheless! Robert Moore as Johnny, and Susan Roemer as Frankie (who wore pale pink, of course, because she’s meant to appear innocent), performed with verve, but Sarah Nyfield had the juicier role as Cat, or at least she made it juicier. Her scandalous man-stealer was a character you couldn’t forget. Slinky and seductive, she embodied the ultimate bad girl in a very good way.