Contemporary ballet

Why it took a decade for Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s commission ‘The Turntable’ to spin

The dancers of Smuin Contemporary Ballet rehearse “The Turntable”. Photo: Chris Hardy

When Smuin Contemporary Ballet Artistic Director Celia Fushille first visited Cuba, she took part in a dance rehearsal. There, in a theater without electricity, was a dancer she couldn’t take her eyes off.

“He had these long, graceful arms and this incredible wingspan, like an eagle,” Fushille recalled. “And the way he covers the ground, he’s like a panther, with a mix of control and fluidity that I loved.”

It was 2012, the dancer was Osnel Delgado, and Fushille knew in an instant that she wanted him to work with her dancers in San Francisco.

Now, finally, Delgado is here.

Rushing from the company’s teaching class at Smuin’s Mission District studios on a hot September day, Delgado said he was “so enthralled by the passion of this company.” They’ve been hard at work on her new dance “The Turntable,” which is set to premiere on Smuin’s “Dance Series 1” on Friday, Sept. 16 in Mountain View, before airing in San Francisco and Walnut Creek.

Choreographer Osnel Delgado during the rehearsal of “The Turntable”. Photo: Chris Hardy

The decade that followed brought huge changes to Delgado’s life and career. When Fushille first spotted him, he had just left Cuba’s most prestigious modern dance company, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, and was dancing with Ebony, a company founded by his father.

Just six months after Fushille’s trip, Delgado co-founded his own group, Malpaso Dance Company. This company soon commissioned two new works, one from acclaimed American choreographer Ronald K. Brown and the other from Delgado, who had been doing dances since he was a young boy. Both were hits, leading Malpaso to be named company associate of the Joyce Theater in New York, which now books Delgado’s troupe for regular seasons there and around the world.

But even with Joyce handling Malpaso’s bookings, navigating the complexities of communications with Cuba, let alone changing US policy, was tricky. Then, just as Delgado was heading to San Francisco and starting his Smuin commission in 2020, the pandemic hit and the season was canceled.

All that to say, having Delgado in the studios this month has been a long-awaited, surreal, and inspiring journey for the San Francisco-based dance company.

“Honestly, you watch him move and you forget you’re supposed to pay attention to learn choreography, his movement is so beautiful,” Smuin member Tessa Barbour said.

Choreographer Osnel Delgado watches dancers rehearse “The Turntable.” Photo: Chris Hardy

The dance created by Delgado is an exciting stretch for Smuin dancers. “The Turntable” features a real rotating disc at its center, on which Barbour sometimes stands. The dance itself is not audience-oriented, but composed in the round, with a full set of 16 swirling around the literal and symbolic center, to music ranging from Cuban violinist William Roblejo’s arrangement of the tune from “Wayne’s Thang” jazz, to bittersweet boleros and tracks from the Bay Area’s own Kronos Quartet.

“It’s about a search for happiness, for joy, for the imaginary person we’re looking for,” Delgado explained. “I think after the pandemic, all this isolation, I made the decision to create things to connect people, even to connect dancers with each other. So there are two main characters trying to find each other all throughout the play, but everyone is part of the same story.The whole scene is the hub.

Smuin’s dancers rehearse “The Turntable”. Photo: Chris Hardy

Far more difficult than the concept, for Smuin dancers is the style of movement. It is inspired by Delgado’s training in ballet and his training at the National School of Dance in Havana, but also by modern dance, folk forms and Cuban social dances.

“Usually for ballerinas it’s about creating an outside image, and you think about doing the best line,” Barbour said. “With Osnel’s move, I’m being asked to step out of my comfort zone and think not about how it looks but how it feels. And every time you dance it, it has to feel like it’s the first time – you have to surrender to the vulnerability of the moment.

For Fushille, who became artistic head of Smuin following the death of founder Michael Smuin in 2007, these qualities of Delgado’s style made him ideal for connecting the company to both its past and its evolving present, in which the troupe dances a stylistically expanded range of works by international choreographers like Amsterdam-based Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose daring “Requiem for a Rose” is also on the program.

“In a weird way, Osnel reminded me of Michael because Michael wasn’t just a ballet dancer and had trained and loved so many styles,” Fushille said. “I wanted our dancers to integrate the contemporary into their classical training, to mingle (with ballet) with this fluidity. Osnel’s work on them will impact them in everything they dance.

Smuin’s dancers rehearse “The Turntable”. Photo: Chris Hardy

After two weeks with Smuin completing his commission, Delgado will soon depart for New York, where Malpaso is set to dance works by legendary Swedish choreographer Mats Ek alongside works by current American and Canadian choreographers Robyn Mineko Williams and Aszure Barton at the Joyce . But he leaves San Francisco with nothing but appreciating the eagerness of Smuin’s dancers to channel his influence.

“They have a soul,” he said. “They try to reach people not just with their bodies, but with all their experience.”

“Dance Series 1” by Smuin Contemporary Ballet: 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 16; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 17; 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 18. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 30; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 and Oct. 1; 2 p.m. on September 25 and October 1 and 2. Cowell Theater, 2 Marina Blvd., SF; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7; 2 p.m. Oct. 8. Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. $34 to $84.