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Smuin Ballet - 10th Annivesary Retrospective

'Dances with Words'; excerpts from 'Frankie and Johnnie,' 'Cyrano,' 'Sueños Latinos,' 'The Blue Angel,' 'Carmina Burana'; 'Short Ride'; 'Dances with Gershwin'

Razzle Dazzle Marks Smuin Ballet's 10th Anniversary

by Catherine Pawlick

April 30, 2004 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

True to the company's razzle-dazzle style, the tenth anniversary of Smuin Ballet was celebrated with plenty of fanfare and theatrics. Grace and possibility are keywords to Smuin's talent, and the company displayed both during Friday night's opening performance for their 10th anniversary season.

Founded March 7, 1994, Michael Smuin's company has grown in prestige and reknown, completing their first European tour to Italy this spring, and reaching an annual budget of 2.5 million dollars. But more importantly, his choreography remains the epitome of creativity and fun, hitting chords of appreciation within audience members from a wide generational range.

After his departure as Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet, Michael Smuin's dream was to create a small, lean company with reasonable ticket prices that would spread the love of dance throughout the Bay Area, the United States, and abroad. So summarized the opening guest speaker of the evening, actor Peter Donat in his opening remarks. And it seems, in the ten years since the company's founding, Smuin has achieved all three of his goals.

Friday night's program was a sampling from Michael Smuin's entire choreographic career, with the emphasis, of course, on his work with Smuin Ballet. But in with the myriad of short excerpts from his choreographic works were film clips (both ballet and broadway), audio commentary from Smuin himself, national and local TV clips. The company's experiences have spanned spots in "Star Wars" and "A Walk in the Clouds" (the grape-crushing scene) as well as the tribute to Ira Gershwin at 100, held in Carnegie Hall. They also made local dance history by being the first ballet company to "dance" the national anthem for the San Francisco Giants at PacBell Park. All of this, and more, was covered in the snippets of video delivered intermittently throughout the evening, and offering a historical framework (for those who may not have known) for his career and for the pieces performed for this anniversary.

Act One offered no less than fifteen short excerpts from past works. After a brief prologue done in silhouettes against a red backdrop, the section began with the charming Nicole Trerise dancing to Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." She maneuvered herself en pointe around a lone red ballet barre placed center stage, hair down, in a simple black unitard, all smiles and grace. She was followed by Celia Fushille-Burke in a red unitard, who danced a suggestive pas de deux with a red chair to "Fever" by Davenport and Cooley. Unfortunately, this section didn't emphasize Fushille-Burke's strongest talents, and so left hardly a memory once Amy Seiwart and Lee Bell entered, both clothed all in white for "Unchained Melody" set to music by Alex North. Siewart's lovely legs and rock solid technique make her a pleasure to watch, and this pas de deux held several interesting lifts, including one where she is balancing on the back of Bell's neck. Such lifts are one of Smuin's signatures, challenging each male in his troupe, and make each female look lighter and more ethereal. And as if to prove that point, they ended their dance in a one-handed lift a la "Spring Waters" as Bell carried her off.

"Georgia on My Mind" jazzed things up with a sensual, suggestive pas de deux among two nightclub (or bar, witnessed by the guitar-shaped neon "Budweiser" sign) lovers. Vanessa Thiessen, new to the company this year, danced with John DeSerio, each providing effective delivery. The mood then lightened with "Straighten Up and Fly Right", in which Trerise, along with Shannon Hurlburt, Robin Cornwell and David Strobbe jitterbug (almost) in ballroom shoes and Astaire-like moves. The men in simple black T-shirts and slacks, the women in long white dresses, made for an elegant but oh-so-simple heart-warming dance.

Other excerpts also in Act One focused on most of Smuin's full-length works. Those included the Mambo section from "Frankie and Johnny", danced admirably by Pedro Gamino with Vanessa Thiessen, as well as the pas de trios from "Cyrano", and excerpts from "Sueños Latinos", "The Blue Angel", "Carmina Burana" and others. Perhaps the only disappointment in the second half of Act One was the lengthy Blue Angel pas. Clever use of the umbrella in a very 1920's-faithful style was set to thickly-accented German music, and a few audience members seemed to lose interest after a while. However, the puppet tango from "Frankie and Johnny" danced by Shannon Hurlburt received plenty of audience chuckles. The Danza de Jalisco from "Suenos Latinos" was a whip-snapping, crisply delivered little piece. Gianna Davy, along with Thiessen and Seiwert danced en pointe in cowboy hats and cow-print pants to the tunes of Aaron Copeland. It was hard not to notice the similarities here to Smuin's horse section from the last act of his "The Tempest". But even when themes within his choreography may replay themselves, they're never dull, only newer and ever-fresh.

Act II began with a surprise. As many Bay Area dance fans are already aware, company member Amy Seiwart has her own company, and she premiered "Short Ride" just after intermission. The short piece was an essay in stretch and form, beginning with six couples, the women in short, sleek red and black leotards. Her choreography is innovative and fluid, and in fact this piece fit in stylistically with the rest of the bill.

After that we were treated to video excerpts from local KRON Channel 4's special on Roberto Cisneros, Smuin's youngest budding talent, deemed by Smuin, "a little Mozart of dance," who joined the company at age 8 and is now still performing with them at 15. Cisneros then performed a solo to Paul Simon's "Homeless", a display piece for his acrobatic ability and emotional delivery. The ease with which he dances is visible, and his future in dance apparently limitless.

Pedro Gamino kicked off the "Dances with Gershwin" section, soaring in his weightless leaps. He's another example of a dancer who has grown under Smuin's tutelage, and who, when given a solo here or there, performs it with high standards and grace. His future too will be bright. Shannon Hurlburt continued the Gershwin theme in his crisp-tapping "‘Rhythm’ Melody" section. It is rare we see tap dancing on stage anymore, and so the tap sections Smuin includes in his works are always a refreshing part of the evening. And no one does them better than Hurlburt, his contagious smile will pull in even the most reluctant dance fan. And just when you think it doesn't get any better – it does. Nicole Trerise -- clothed in a short red velvet "dress", long black gloves and bejeweled wherever possible -- was a bewitching Marilyn Monroe in "Do It Again", a comical, broadway-esque piece done to the backdrop of six male admirers carrying ostrich feathers. The men use the feathers in every way imaginable as Trerise taunts, tempts and teases.

The highlights don't stop there, but to cover everything, well, would be to give away more of the treats in store for Smuin fans during this retrospective season. Suffice it to say any Smuin fan should attend this program, and any Bay Area dance fan will recieve a quick and easy glimpse at the company's first ten years. Judging from the company's growth, the Bay Area has been a fertile birthplace for Smuin Ballet, and we look forward to being his home for the next ten years as well.


Edited by Jeff.

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