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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: SMUIN Contemporary Ballet, Dance Series 2 from 2023-24 Season, Yerba Buena Center, May 3 – 12, 2024

Last month, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, inspired by the life of Frieda Kahlo, made its San Francisco Ballet debut to critical and viewer acclaim.  The caliber of creativity, artistic excellence, and compelling choreography set it apart from other ballets, while delivering the kind of devastating punch of a classically rendered tragedy like Giselle

Meanwhile, across town in the SMUIN Ballet studios Lopez Ochoa was putting the finishing touches on her newest ballet Tupelo Tornado, based on the life of another iconic figure, Elvis Presley.  I caught the second performance (Saturday matinee) of Tupelo and left amazed anew at Lopez Ochoa’s unique perspective and evocative story-telling. To get to see two works by this renowned international artist so close together is a privilege that should not be missed.  Her Elvis is isolated by fame, his growth stunted as he is trapped within expectations and narratives beyond his control.  Rather than following a biographical timeline Lopez Ochoa, along with her visual and musical collaborators, lead us on an emotional trajectory.

A life-sized bobble-head, with a glowing TV set framing his face throughout, Brandon Alexander portrays Elvis with vulnerability and pathos.  Bare chested in tight shiny black jeans, his knees cant inward in a familiar Elvis silhouette, as he lip-synchs the lyrics of “Spacious Minds”, (his microphone an actual Elvis bobble-head).  The lyrics “Caught in a trap, I can't walk out,” and “Why can't you see, What you're doing to me, When you don't believe a word I say?,” take on weighted meaning as they intermingle with interview segments exemplifying the interviewers’ commodification of Elvis.  In this way, Jake Rodriguez’s soundtrack matches Lopez Ochoa’s brilliance time and again.

Smuin artist Brandon Alexander (center) and the company in the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Tupelo Tornado." Inspired by the life and music of Elvis, the new ballet is part of Smuin's "Dance Series 2" program, touring the Bay Area now through May 31. Photo: Chris Hardy

The curtain opens on a dozen back-up dancers, their backs to us as they jive. They are barely dressed, in dove-grey tights, with naked torsos for the men and bralettes for the women. Their elbow-length blue-satin gloves are symbolic placeholder for a slick country-music costume in designer Susan Roemer’s metaphor-rich world.  American show business references resonate as a diagonal line of dancers in top hats calls out both Michael’s Bennett’s “A Chorus Line,” and Fosse’s self-destruction bio-pic “All That Jazz.” 

Alexander Nichol’s scenic and lighting design place us in an anonymous succession of backstages, dressing rooms, and “On the Air” recording and television studios, where Elvis spent the majority of his time. The curtainless stage is dressed scantily with prop doors, a few theatrical lights and a staircase to nowhere. It’s a lonely world full of impersonal back-up dancers and stage technicians that move around him, in synch with each other but not with him.

The ever-versatile Smuin dancers bring Lopez Ochoa’s world to life with effervescent energy. The movement, performed in high-topped iridescent athletic shoes which read as boots, is jazzy, with references to Elvis’s signature gestures, such as the whirling of a straight arm along one’s side, or rocking hip rotations. There is a voyeuristic vibe as we watch the dancers, whose focus rarely faces out, work for cameras and audiences just out of sight.

The corps dancing is vibrant, and the stage buzzes around our hero, amplifying his singularity.  One scene finds the stage full of bodies striding purposefully to-and-fro, with all but Alexander, wearing over-sized, cardboard Elvis masks.  One masked-Elvis jauntily crosses with another masked-Elvis balanced sideways atop their shoulder, like a stiff cardboard cut-out.

The lyric “a wretch like me” from the Gospel song “Amazing Grace,” repeats as a male soloist, Jace Pauly, embodying Elvis’s desperation for approval, risks becoming entangled in the 4-foot-long fringe that line the arms of his micro jacket as he lunges.  A processional of mourners hold crowns ceremonially as one might a box of funereal ashes. Male-female duets, one before Elvis dies and one after, offer insight into Elvis’s struggles for intimacy.  Partners spar, roll in and around each other, only briefly in step, most often their limbs jutting in divergent directions. 

Smuin artist Jace Pauly channels Elvis in the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Tupelo Tornado," part of Smuin's "Dance Series 2" program, touring the Bay Area now through May 31. Photo: Chris Hardy

With Tupelo Lopez Ochoa has used her cultural and generational distance to show us clearly how we fail our idols. Elvis being only the first in a long line of tragic stars. Packing a powerful punch, it’s placement at the end of a varied two-hour and 15-minute program, is wise.

Preceding Tupelo are three Smuin revivals. The show opens with two short ballets, founder Michael Smuin’s dreamy Starshadows (1997) to a Ravel piano concerto, and Smuin company member Brennan Wall’s Untwine to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

Untwine began as a duet in 2021 and was expanded to include three additional couples as a longer work in 2022.  The core duet featuring Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander is spell-binding.  Wall crafts intricate spins in unusual postures, which draws us in. This couple seems bound to one another and yet, also ready to break free. Isaacson arches away from her man, pushing her palms into his hip bones, as he grasps her around the waist twirling them both through space.  Leaving is complicated, as interdependencies and physical comforts attract despite a determination to move on. Isaacson runs toward the far corner, gliding on the tips of her toe-shoes with her legs spread in a taut vee, before hesitating and dashing back into Alexander’s strong and forgiving arms.

Smuin artists Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander in Brennan Wall’s "Untwine." Photo: Chris Hardy

The second act features Broken Open (2015) an abstract work which choreographer Amy Seiwert uses to represent the idea of “something beautiful born from a scar.” Unfolding in six sections, its alternating moods are supported by renowned cellist and composer Julia Kent’s layering of processed cello and electronics (Kent performs live opening weekend only).

Smuin artists Terez Dean Orr and Mengjun Chen in the 2015 world premiere of "Broken Open." Photo: Chris Hardy

Broken Open finds the large cast of sixteen dancers coming and going in small groups near constantly, a blur of urban graffiti decorating their costumes.  Guest dancer, Shania Rasmussen is magnetic in the opening sequences, while Terez Dean Orr is gorgeous wherever she appears, lifting the work with her musicality and sharp execution.  Partnered here in a featured duet with Smuin’s newest company member Dominic Barrett, she smooths any rough edges in this new coupling. A VIP of this matinee cast, Cassidy Isaacson shines alongside Ricardo Dyer. Our final image is one of hope and transcendence as she appears to float horizontally above him, her arms taking a long clearing breast stroke toward us as Dyer carriers her upstage.

Tupelo Tornado puts another big log on the fire that is San Francisco’s bright-burning dance scene this Winter and Spring which has included awe-inspiring premieres of Aszure Barton’s Mere Mortals, Alonzo King’s Spring, and Prumsodon Ok’s A Deepest Blue. I hope audiences find this unconventional gem. The program’s uninspired promotional photo, featuring an Elvis impersonator, belies the fresh gritty impactful ethos of the work.

  SMUIN Contemporary Ballet’s (SMUIN) Dance Series 2 continues through Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 12, at the Blue Shield of California Theater at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, with additional performances at the Mountainview Performing Arts Center May 16 through 19, Walnut Creek May 24 & 25, and Carmel May 30 & 31. 

Review by Jen Norris of the May 42:00 p.m. matinee performance, published May 6, 2024



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