Smuin Ballets/SF

"Stabat Mater," "Bouquet," and "Come Dance Me A Song"

Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason
San Francisco, CA

Nov. 14, 2002
By Catherine Pawlick

Those who remember his tenure at San Francisco Ballet may recall with pleasure some of his long-lost and well-known ballets such as Song for Dead Warriors and Tempest. But Michael Smuin moved beyond purely classical forms fairly early on in his choreographing career, and he has been able to bring a perfect mix of classical ballet and theatrical showcasing to his homegrown company, Smuin Ballet, since its inception in 1994.

Now in its ninth season, the company’s current run at Cowell Theatre in San Francisco features an evening of three short works, Stabat Mater, Bouquet and the recently premiered Come Dance Me A Song, set to Elton John favorites. All of them reflect Mr. Smuin’s innovative choreography, staging talent, and his innate knack for creative, audience-pleasing pieces.

The evening opened with Stabat Mater, but for its serious nature, there are no pointe shoes here. Mater is a ballet done in soft ballet shoes against a backdrop of desert-like rocks. Apparently spurred in part as a tribute to 9/11, this piece goes far in its representation of loss and mourning. Two main dancers, male and female, grace the stage while four couples dance behind them. The female’s gestures suggest Mary’s lament for her son — or anyone’s lament for a lost loved one. The choreography makes frequent use of cross-like positions and anguishing reaches. In the opening movement four women are all 'seized' as if by grief: they rise to demi-pointe at the cue of a high choral note, and fall back in a fainting motion, but are caught by the men near them. When the piece closes, the main male figure (Rudolph Cassand) leaves the stage as a loved one might, for reasons unknown and beyond one’s control. The female (Claudia Alfieri) is left looking bewildered at the spotlight that replaces the one she just lost. Smuin’s choreography couldn’t better represent such powerful music, and the dancers carry it out spectacularly.

Bouquet is a lighter-hearted piece, set to the music of Shostakovich. Bolshoi ballet-omanes will recognize the first section’s music as that which Yuri Grigorovich used for the love pas de deux from his ballet, The Golden Age. The two choreographers represent the music quite differently. Grigorovich created his version on Natalia Bessmertnova and Irek Mukhamedov years ago, and the pas de deux is slow, sensual and represents well nearly every note in those sections of the score. Smuin takes a different approach: playful and sweet, with choreographic accents here and there on certain crescendos. He places one woman, (Galina Alexandrova) with four suitors, and her joy is evident throughout. Of particular note was a set of partnered double turns into developpé ecarté, done quite nicely by all.

The second section of Bouquet stands out even more. A couple clothed in spare flesh-colored costumes, (Easton Smith and Celia Fushille-Burke) do more than just express the sensuality and togetherness of new love. Mr. Smith is a strong partner, an equal match for Ms. Fushille-Burke, and her refined technique. The couple emitted grace and joy on Thurday night, but not at the expense of well-executed steps. This pas de deux was one highlight of the evening.

Smuin and cast let loose in the final piece of the evening, Come Dance Me A Song, which includes a live pianist as well as a recorded compilation of some of Sir Elton John’s music. Costumes and choreography shift the tone to jazzy fun right away with the “Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes.” Each dancer has glittery red shoes, the audience’s first hint that the fun is about to begin.

Ms. Fushille-Burke and Mr. Smith return for a second pas de deux against a black backdrop littered with stars in the second section, set to “Your Song.” At times Mr. Smith acted almost as a ballet barre, supporting Ms. Fushille-Burke in some basic exercises; at others he was sweeping her across the floor. Echoes of the connection they shared in Bouquet are carried over to this piece, lending a strength of purpose to their interaction even in this new setting.

The third section gets a bit wilder with touches of silver and purple in the costumes; the fourth features two men (Shannon Herlburt and David Strobbe) and a woman (Nicole Trerise) tap dancing in bowler hats to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.“ Ballet fans might assume a short tap piece would be out of place on the same program; they would be wrong. The music, the dancers, and again, Smuin’s clever choreography come into perfect unison here.

Michael Smuin knows what works. He is an endless source of fresh creativity, and he has an eye for selecting strong, unique dancers for his small troupe. To those that would argue it is too early to say he is a Bay Area legend, he certainly is a Bay Area gem, and worth seeing if you haven’t already had the pleasure.


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Edited by Marie.

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