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Smuin Ballet - 'Stabat Mater,' 'Bouquet,' 'Come Dance Me a Song'

Smuin's season opener is strong

by Mary Ellen Hunt

November 11, 2002 -- Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

The redoubtable and hard-working Smuin Ballet, looking stronger than ever, brings some thoughtful moments to the stage with their fall season, which opened on Friday.

Although usually known for a brazenly entertaining style, the company strikes a decidedly minor key with this latest program, which features "Stabat Mater," artistic director Michael Smuin's response to Sept. 11; the mysterious and romantic "Bouquet"; and the premiere of "Come Dance Me a Song," Smuin's latest foray into the pop world via Elton John tunes.

It was an evening in which the Smuin Ballet's characteristic vividness seemed muted, with only sparks of their usual gusto appearing here and there. But then, the character of each of the three works on the bill was pensive in mood, even that of "Come Dance Me a Song."

Though satisfyingly constructed, Smuin's cabaret-ballets have become almost formulaic in their approach, including a good selection of tunes, some lyrical moments, a sexy interchange or two and a nice up-tempo closer. He has such a distinctive way of assembling steps, of spreading out the whiz-bang lifts and tricks, that it might be a long way into the piece before you notice that you're watching a string of very cleverly arranged contrivances with not a lot of substance behind them.

Performed with a series of questionable piano embellishments to Sir Elton's songs provided by Michael Bayless, this ballet is harmless enough. The '60s-style costumes by Ann Beck are cute, though peculiarly sedate when compared with the characteristic flamboyance of John's wardrobe. Then too, certain moments stand out for their charm: a delightful Amy Seiwert sliding almost headlong into a split in John DeSerio's arms in "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," Pedro Gamino's engaging smile as he turned easily into multiple pirouettes in "Crocodile Rock," Nicole Trerise's casual sex appeal in "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Overall though, the piece just barely hangs together as a series of loosely tied vignettes.

"Come Dance Me A Song" is elevated, however, by one of Smuin's most moving duets, set to "The Last Song" and performed by Shannon Hurlburt and Lee Bell. It's worth coming to the show just for this short piece alone. With contained fervor, Hurlburt brings a special poignancy to the story of a son who, as he is dying, realizes the love his father has for him. The choreography offers one of the few moments of gimmick-free simplicity in the evening, and it is all the more powerful because of it.

That kind of power was oddly missing in "Stabat Mater." The piece is set to Antonin Dvorak's oratorio of the same name and describes the grief of a mother over the loss of her son. Perhaps we are enough removed from the events of Sept. 11 that the piece must begin to find its own resonance apart from the shadow of that tragedy, and there is a resonance to be found. With its asymmetrical set and fluid, shifting choreography, "Stabat Mater" deftly suggests a world out of balance, with the mother (Sarah Barber-Wilson) being buffeted by forces beyond her control. Barber-Wilson and Easton Smith led Friday night's cast with strong dancing, but nevertheless, the dancers still seemed more blank than stoic in the face of anguish.

Smuin's lovely 1981 ballet "Bouquet" is also on the program, and it is a romance in both the literal and philosophical sense. Choreographed to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the ballet's two sections offer parallel views: 19th century Romantic longing contrasted with a more contemporary romantic style. The opening quartet is bound together by the generous dancing of Galina Alexandrova as the dream that interrupts the reverie of a trio of men. The pas de deux section, set to Shostakovich's exquisite andante from his second piano concerto, is among Smuin's most poetic pieces of choreography -- although as danced by Smith and Celia Fushille-Burke, it lacks the depth of feeling and chemistry that would make it truly affecting.

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This review first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

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