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Smuin Ballet - 'Les Noces,' 'Suite Gershwin,' 'Tango Palace'

Smuin delivers a sassy, spirited show

by Mary Ellen Hunt

February 9, 2004 -- Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California

Looking sharper and far better rehearsed than they did during their recent October season in San Francisco, Smuin Ballet strutted a triple bill of dance spectaculars into the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek over the weekend.

This easily entertaining program, which they'll take to Mountain View later in the month, featured the same works -- "Les Noces," "Suite Gershwin" and Michael Smuin's latest "Tango Palace" -- as their Cowell Theater home season, although it was missing the thoughtful debut piece from company dancer Shannon Hurlburt.

You'd have to be pretty grumpy not to admit that when Smuin Ballet is at its best, it makes for a good evening's entertainment. In order to enjoy the show though, you first have to relinquish the idea that anything you're going to see will be, in the strictest sense, authentic. "St. Louis Woman," Smuin's recent "blues ballet" for Dance Theatre of Harlem, is a Johnny Mercer, Broadway vision of the blues; his brightly festive-looking version of Igor Stravinsky's stark Russian peasant wedding, "Les Noces" is less borscht than Borscht Belt; and "Tango Palace" owes more to the showy "Forever Tango" than to the dance halls of Buenos Aires.

Still, authenticity is not what Smuin about, and judging from his enthusiastic following, that's probably not even what his fans are interested in seeing. Here, the show's the thing.

Before anyone had even danced a step of "Tango Palace" there was applause for the smoky dance atmosphere created by Sara Linnie Slocum's effective lighting and the provocatively posed dancers in Ann Beck's costumes.

Dancing in a curiously open embrace -- given that they're such a sexy company -- the three couples took to the floor with haughty confidence, showing off deep lunges and ganchos, or leggy hooks, punctuated by music from tango artists from Sexteto Tango and Astor Piazzolla to Edith Piaf.

Predictably, the focus stayed mainly on the women, with the men often seeming like shadowy enigmas, although a pairing of John de Serio and David Strobbe was played for comedy and Shannon Hurlburt brought a slouchy hands-in-pockets ease to his duet with Robin Cornwell.

"Tango Palace" consciously split into two parts: one half danced with the women in sexy little tango shoes, and the other half on pointe. As pretty as the Smuin women -- Saturday's cast included Cornwell, Celia Fushille-Burke and Nicole Trerise -- looked in those shoes, quite frankly they did better in the pointe shoes. The dancers looked happier, the choreography was snappier, and there was no need for authenticity questions.

The biggest drawback for "Tango Palace," though, was that the piece is choreographed and set, which robs it of some of the spontaneity and inspiration that tango can have in the real milongas. The women knew exactly which way their partners were going and the men knew just when every flourish would happen. Stops were empty moments instead of pregnant pauses and the result looked almost perfunctory, rather than like a conversation between two people deeply attuned to each other. Nevertheless, as a spectator sport it was fun, and Smuin's tango fantasia won cheers from the audience.

Opening the program was "Les Noces," featuring Sarah Barber-Wilson and Strobbe as the groom and bride. The raw and disturbing Stravinsky score is difficult and emotionally mixed under any circumstances, for performers and audience alike, making it difficult to know if we should have been lamenting with the bride or cheering on the randy groom. Still, Smuin does put together some pleasantly Russified ensemble moments and memorable patterns, although the most striking one, of the women stacking their heads, one on top of the other, comes directly from the original choreography by Bronislava Nijinska.

The evening closed on an up note with "Suite Gershwin," an abbreviated version of Smuin's 2001 "Dancin' with Gershwin," with a pair of new solos for Roberto Cisneros added in for good measure.

Among the set pieces, Fushille-Burke and partner Lee Bell brought a sheen of old-fashioned romance to Michael Feinstein's recording of "They Can't Take That Away From Me," while Hurlburt provided his reliably cheerful tapping in a duet with Cisneros to "Fascinating Rhythm." Junichi Fukuda and a glum Barber-Wilson had little chemistry dancing to a duet to Lena Horne singing "Someone to Watch Over Me," but by the time the entire company tapped and flapped their way onstage for the "Shall We Dance" finale, spirits were high.

No doubt when they return to the Lesher Center for their 10th Anniversary show in May, they'll be warmly welcomed.

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This review first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

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