Whimsical, inventive, and ebullient, If I Were a Sushi Roll is the latest vibrant addition to Smuin Contemporary American Ballet’s repertoire. This newly commissioned work from celebrated choreographer Val Caniparoli is an example of artistic collaboration at its finest. The choreographer attributes much of his creative process to working closely with his design team: costume designer Susan Roemer and scenic designer Douglas Schmidt, as well as lighting designer Michael Oesch. “I’m not one to create the work and then invite the designers in to paste something on what I’ve done,” he explains. Caniparoli’s multi-layered approach involves each of these artistic collaborators from day one, bouncing ideas off one another and shaping the work as they go.
Each of Sushi Roll’s artistic voices has a long history of designing for both Smuin and Caniparoli. Set designer Douglas Schmidt, who boasts an impressive career spanning over 30 years, first worked with Company Founder Michael Smuin during his tenure at San Francisco Ballet and later designed the sets for Smuin’s colorful Zorro! While Michael Smuin had a penchant for narrative-driven works, “Val is much more abstract,” Schmidt recounts. “Story ballets are always very specific, so it’s been a very different experience working for a choreographer who’s thinking more in terms of body and space.” Costume designer Susan Roemer first made a name for herself as a dancer with the Company before turning to design. In addition to her designs for Smuin, Roemer has designed and constructed costumes for San Francisco Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Ballet West, Singapore Dance Theatre, and many more. Roemer shares that during her career as a dancer she “watched [many] other costume designers make things from scratch and adapt things to fit the choreography.” She credits her fascination with this process as one of the things that ultimately drew her to designing for dance.
Collaboration is at the heart of all of Caniparoli’s work, and the team effort is evident in the striking final product presented onstage. Following the choreographer’s initial idea for the work, the design team pulled inspiration from the lyrics of one of Nico Muhly and Teitur’s songs, “Don’t I Know You from Somewhere?” The title of the ballet eventually emerged from the same song, after the visual inspiration for the designs began to evolve. The team drew from pop art references (with Roemer citing American pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol as part of her inspiration), as well as fashion magazines. Images depicting Japanese cuisine and metropolitan life populated the initial discussions. “We spent a lot of time with images and the feeling of the piece without committing to any kind of design,” Roemer recalls. She describes the subsequent work with Caniparoli as “extremely hands-on, like playing Hot Potato―a meeting here, a phone call there; bouncing ideas off of each other constantly.”
When it came to creating a new set for Sushi Roll, each set piece had to meet specific criteria. They needed to be mobile, as the dancers interact and move with them, but sizeable enough that they could be seen from the last row of any theater. If the graphics weren’t clear from a distance, the audience might miss crucial and clever moments in the choreography, like the ensemble mimicking Jane Fonda or dancer Mengjun Chen finding solace in a bottle of sake after his disheartening encounters in “Nowheresville.” Schmidt’s favorite part of the creative process is the conceptualizing that takes place prior to executing his designs. The fun of the process lies in being able to “make absurd suggestions,” he shares. “Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but very often they’re a spark for something else that will lead to [the final product].” The rest, Schmidt jokingly says, is “just work.”
Between the dynamic choreography, colorful set pieces, and striking lighting design, Sushi Roll is visually stimulating in many ways. For Roemer, this indicated the need for a simplified color palette. She found herself designing the women’s costumes around their shoes: a coated canvas jazz bootie that to Roemer “highlights the cross between very pedestrian and something that shows off [the dancers’] skill.” The subsequent designs came from the idea of the “humdrum of regular life.” The simplicity of the costumes makes a powerful statement amidst the otherwise colorful piece. “We all wear this uniform―it’s kind of this stream of going to work and living life, but there are all these stories that come out of that uniformity,” the costume designer reveals.
The ballet itself is about both everything and nothing at all, which “seems very relevant to the city that we live in,” Roemer elaborates. “You walk down one street and you witness a whole scene with lots of different conversations; you turn the corner and it’s something else completely. I feel like the ballet represents that―it’s about the human experience.”
** Written by Eva Faizi, Smuin’s Communications Manager
Watch the video below to learn more about the collaboration between the creative team behind If I Were a Sushi Roll.