By Bette Kiernan
The Smuin Ballet in celebration of its 20th anniversary, is offering a special gift for ballet goers in XXTREMES. The high level artistic expression of underlying light and dark themes shine throughout the performance in a magnificent way. Smuin Ballet reaches the new artistic heights in this superb creation in the portrayals of Dear Miss Cline, Return to a Strange Land and Carmina Burana.
Dear Miss Cline, based upon the music of country and western hit singer of the 1950’s, Patsy Cline, is a charming dance around delight. Choreographer in residence, Amy Seiwert, is a former Smuin dancer and highly acclaimed for her work. Cline’s top of the chart hits of the 50’s include “Triangle”, “Walking after Midnight”, “Come On In”, “There He Goes” and others. The red and white costumes and dance moves that went from classic ballet, to modern, and spiced with swing, evoked the sense of that era in a most incredible way. The clothing of the age is perfectly represented. Women dancers were costumed in a red and white in a wide striped shirtwaist dress, a bare midriff and pedal pushers, and ruffed bare arm sundresses popular in the day that were pretty on stage as they were when worn on a hot summer day sixty years ago. Red scarves perked hairdos just as they adorned back when these outfits were the dress of the day. Crinolines, the requisite uncomfortable undergarments made from horse hair or stiff fabric that were worn under full cotton skirts, completed the picture. Actually scratchy and miserable to wear, they added authenticity and grace to Dear Miss Cline. Cline’s music, dance moves of women subservient to men, and well researched costumes of popular dress of the time, carried a power like a time capsule that could return one to the fifties. A boom time in America, underlying discontent came throughout the performance through Cline’s songs of the continual movement between love and loss.
I came of age as a teenager in the 1950’s in the southern town of Petersburg, Virginia. Patsy Cline’s music was the soundscape that accompanied me everywhere. She sang throughout rides to the drive in movies that my father referred to as the “passion pits”, the constant radio in my room, jukeboxes, and everywhere popular hits were heard. The recurrent themes of love and loss, were are as poignant on stage expressed by the Smuin company as they were then. The fifties, a boom time, also had an undercurrent of deep loss with the Second World War still in memory. Like our current times, a strong dark shadow of worry seems to pull and tug-despite new abundance for fortunate ones. My friend who accompanied to the ballet grew up in Montana after immigrating to the United States from Europe. His experience of Dear Miss Cline, aroused for him as well the strong sense of place where he too long ago listened to Cline. The costumes, dance moves, and music, combined have power to restore the youth of the time the music was first heard.
Seeing Dear Miss Cline evoked strong longing to return to my original home and to see it again for the first time. The strength of Dear Miss Cline was such that it brought up summer scents of Lilac, Honeysuckle, Rose, Pine and Magnolia blooming on simmering hot days when she crooned her country tunes with their sad undertones playing in the background. A response to the experienced call to return home, seemed to come later in the program from choreographer Jiri Kylian, producer of Return to a Strange Land wherein regarding his work he states, “The substance of which, bodies are made of, has always existed on the other side: the unconscious. To live is to become conscious. To die is to return to the other land: the strange land of one’s origin”. Return is impossible for one never really consciously knew the place.
Return to A Strange Land displays inventive sculptural forms performed in trios and set to the music of Leos Janacek. The title embodies the idea of the place we come from and where we return after death. In my personal experience, the concept was linked deeply to viewing Dear Miss Cline, in that it strongly conjured a return to home. In regard to Return to a Strange Land, Smuin Ballet’s current Artistic and Executive Director Celia Fushille stated, “We are delighted and deeply honored to be granted the opportunity of presenting another of Mr. Kylian’s extraordinary works in the Bay Area.” The work, expressed by six dancers, combines the elegance of classical ballet with rapidly changing geometric forms in a reflection on loss, healing, and hope. Music by Janacek, a Czech composer, musical theorist, folklorist and teacher added profound undertones powerfully expressed throughout. The music and dancers move together in a perfect fusion to create a meditation on loss, healing and hope. The dramatic set further expands the power of the work with red background enhanced with smoke that moved in accordance to the expression of the dance. My friend, an aeronautics expert, was especially impressed by the dynamic complexity of the dancer’s geometric arrangements. Danced in trios, each moment of Return to a Strange Land, is a new and magnificent work of art in music and movement. The work was initially conceived by Kylian, as a tribute to a special mentor, John Cranko. It is also a larger acknowledgment and mark of respect to the infinite potential of human beings to create extraordinary forms of unique artistic expressions. The experience of viewing Stranger in a Strange Land instills hope for the future through its inherent statement that seemingly impossible expressions of beauty can indeed be brought into being and elevated to a high place of honor.
Carmina Burana is one of Michael Smuin’s most highly praised works. Dancers express medieval poems sung primarily in Latin set to the music of German composer Carl Orff. It is a most exciting and stimulating ballet with robust fast paced, powerful charging movements alternating with a calm reflective pace. The poems are mostly satirical, bawdy and irreverent. The rhythms are lusty and primitive. Choreographer and founder of the Smuin Ballet stated of Carmina Burana, “I’ve wanted to choreograph Carmina since the first time I heard it: the compelling rhythms are irresistible. Orff gives a choreographer such rich variety of music to interpret: noble, vicious, romantic, bitter, jealous, sinister-every song has its own personality”. The ballet goer is richly blessed by the powerful encounter with this strong exciting work. As with the other pieces in XXTREMES, there is an enlargement of the self through the direct encounter of Smuin’s visionary creative style. As Smuin inventively and brilliantly blends both ballet and modern into a new dance-the experience of his work enhances awareness of one’s own potential for creativity and new possibilities for being.
Bette Kiernan, MFT is a psychotherapist in private practice in Palo Alto, California.
Photos: Courtesy of Smuin Ballet
This review was originally published in Splash Magazines