The 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love is upon us, and San Francisco institutions are marking the milestone in defiance of a nationwide summer of loathing on both sides of the deepening political identity divide. For its part, contemporary American ballet company Smuin has brought a high-octane mixed bill to the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in San Francisco, the centerpiece of which brilliantly summons the insouciance and idealism of the 1960s.
It’s the work of Trey McIntyre, who lifted the title, Be Here Now, from spiritual teacher Ram Dass’ 1971 guide for aspiring yogis. The ballet is not all flower power, psychedelic light shows and altered states of consciousness, however. It is also flecked with the anxieties of the era, right from the opening video projections of atom bombs exploding, soldiers scurrying from trenches in the shadow of gigantic mushroom clouds, civil rights marchers, and draft card burnings.
McIntyre lights a fire under the Smuin dancers. Bedecked in fringe, headbands and cut-offs and showing lots of skin, they are simply terrific. Tripping out to the iconic music of Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jefferson Airplane, among others, the performers mostly look like they’re having a good time. The juxtaposition of their hijinks against images of war and civil unrest makes it hard to appreciate how the counterculture was sticking it to the man. But glimmers of rage and defiance in this dance signal that the drug use, free love, and nature worship were also expressions of rebellion, which profoundly influenced attitudes and mainstream tastes in the decades to follow.
A new work from McIntyre is generally a cause for celebration, particularly since the 2014 disbanding of his own much-lauded contemporary dance company. A truly original voice in the ballet world, McIntyre shows off the Smuin dancers at their most electric. Be Here Now should endear itself not only to Smuin loyalists who have long appreciated the company’s embrace of pop culture, but also to newcomers drawn to the kaleidoscopic sights and sounds of the '60s.
The other consequential offering in this program is the reprise of Smuin resident choreographer Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open from 2015. Set to the moody, pulsating sounds of heavily engineered cello, the piece travels for most of its length like an unpredictable cyclone. Seiwert’s inventory of movement is gripping, and emotion percolates through a steely semaphore of slashing limbs.
The dancers appear locked in confrontation -- sometimes against each other, at other times united against an unseen enemy. Legs are deployed like weapons; tremors erupt at the height of a lift. A harsh light cast intermittently on the scene by a bare lamp suspended from high above the stage amplifies a thrilling sense of danger. Toward the end, the ensemble gathers in a pool of gentle light, looking upward and gesturing as if rain has just started to fall after a long drought. The dancers register a sense of relief and renewed hope.
Hope was what drew tens of thousands of young people to San Francisco in the Summer of Love. But just a year later, that hope was torpedoed by violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; so, too, was Robert Kennedy. The Tet Offensive turned 1968 into the deadliest year of the Vietnam War.
In program notes for Be Here Now, Trey McIntyre writes eloquently and gloomily of the impact of the counterculture on his generation, born in the aftermath of the Summer of Love. “It is impossible for a child to understand the very adult Jenga of justifications that leads the world to point so much destruction at itself,” he writes. “The blissful utopia that the hippie movement sought was the perfect antidote. The goal was love and acceptance of all people. We banded together to fight for the rights of the oppressed and against the restrictive hold of outdated social models. We banded together to fight war.”
From such troubled times -- then and now -- works emerge, like Be Here Now and Broken Open, that are both exuberant and chilling.
Smuin’s 'Dance Series 02' runs through Sunday, May 28, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Click here for information and tickets.