Plenty of Santa Barbara organizations learned what it’s like to get knocked down in mid-stride this winter as the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslides forced the cancellation of dozens of major performances, so there’s no saying any one suffered more than the others. Yet still, the loss of a Nutcracker season means something different for a ballet company than can be fairly compared to virtually any other event. A stage and backstage packed with precious sugarplums and snowflakes, plus an audience filled to the brim with festive family and friends — this is the heart and soul of any company with a youth program and a school. The good news is that, despite this challenging winter, at State Street Ballet (SSB) the spring has finally come, and that means not only the splendid Romeo and Juliet we saw at the Lobero in March but also the company’s freshest major venture, Modern Masters, which has now become an annual occurrence at Ensemble Theatre Company’s sleek New Vic theater. Designed to showcase shorter works both new and old by contemporary choreographers, the program lets the company’s talented dancers loose to perform in multiple styles and take aesthetic leaps that sometimes land outside the boundaries of what we have come to expect from them. As a result, the two nights of Modern Masters, scheduled this year for Friday-Saturday, May 11-12, are among the hottest tickets of the dance season and attract three distinct but overlapping audiences: serious dance fans, fellow professional dancers, and creative types who geek out over the fantastic inventiveness of the movement.
This year, all three of those groups will get served, sometimes at once. Those familiar with the history of State Street Ballet will thrill to William Soleau’s pas de deux Isle, which he originally choreographed for himself and his wife in 1984 and which then became an early signature work in the SSB repertoire. This time around it will be danced by the recent Romeo and Juliet’s fabulous Juliet, Deise Mendonça, alongside Francois Llorente, who was an electrifying Mercutio in that same production.
The Modern Masters format mixes in solos and duets among larger pieces, and this year is no exception. SSB’s Cecily Stewart choreographed one of the night’s bigger ensembles for Reverie (2018), a contemplative work that aims to access the realm of dreams. It’s scored to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and an original work, “Wolofong” by pianist Stephen Kelly, and will feature an ensemble cast of nine. By contrast, both Electra, a world premiere from Autumn Eckman, and Spartacus (excerpts) (2018), by Edgar Zendejas, pit individual female dancers against external forces, albeit in different formats. Electra is a solo about the cycles of life and the growth of leaves that calls for Amara Galloway to interact with a large, leaf-like light fixture. In Spartacus, plucky Saori Yamashita must exert control over a quartet of males: David Block, James Folsom, John Christopher Piel, and Noam Tsivkin.
The effervescent Kevin Jenkins, choreographer of last year’s French-themed pop confection C’est la vie, is back with Flirting, a perfect subject for his lyrical form of satire. Leila Drake will come kicking (not screaming) out of retirement to reprise her part in Nancy Colahan’s 2011 duet K&L/In Tandem, which this time out will be known as J&L/In Tandem to indicate that her partner will be “J” — James Folsom — rather than “K” — Kyle Castillo — as it was in the premiere.
It’s all exciting, but for those who got a glimpse of the work in rehearsal, the night’s most buzzed-about number has to be Kassandra Taylor Newberry’s Fold. Set at an underground poker game, Fold features rolling office chairs and a special poker table on wheels. The dancers flip, flop, fly, and of course fold at a furious pace to a breathtaking score by Hollywood soundtrack titan Hans Zimmer. Get to the New Vic for Modern Masters — the cards are in your favor.