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Smuin Ballet - 'Pacific Dances,' 'Chants d'Auvergne,' 'Frankie and Johnny'

Smuin presents pretty paean to the pacific

by Mary Ellen Hunt

May 9, 2005 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

With its oceanic lull and lazy, island-themed sway, Eliot Feld's "Pacific Dances," which made its West Coast bow on Friday night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, is a pleasingly organic, if not entirely riveting, addition to the Smuin Ballet repertoire.

It's the first time the company has performed a major work from a choreographer outside the Smuin family, but in many ways it's not an unlikely acquisition. Eliot Feld and Michael Smuin -- founder and director of Smuin Ballet -- have a lot of similarities in style and surely a mutual admiration thing going on. Both enjoy a diversity of repertoire, from almost corny theatrical stuff to elegantly imagined abstract dances, and even their companies' names have had a certain parallelism -- Smuin's troupe was formerly known as Smuin Ballets/SF while Feld had a company in the 1990s known as Feld Ballets/NY.

Feld, who danced with American Ballet Theatre and was featured in the movie version of "West Side Story" as Baby John, was something of a Wunderkind in the Big Apple's choreographic landscape during the 1960s and '70s. He continues to choreograph and his New Ballet School, which offers dance training free of charge to New York City public school students, has flourished, despite the disbanding of Ballet Tech, its associated company, which Feld was forced to close for financial reasons in 2003. He has made an even more permanent mark on the city's downtown scene as one of the masterminds behind the Joyce Theater, one of New York's best small venues for dance, where Smuin has enjoyed several successful seasons.

Feld's ballets can range in flavor from the deliriously romantic to the saucily theatrical and "Pacific Dances," a diversion for nine women set to recorded Hawaiian slack key guitar tunes, falls somewhere in between those two categories.

Created in 2001 for Ballet Tech, the work is fairly understated, both by Feld's standards and by Smuin Ballet's. The women, clad in brief white unitards, undulate and ripple across the stage, treading the waves created by the ballet's centerpiece: an enormous rectangle of white parachute silk suspended on cables, which is draped, hung, and generally manipulated by the dancers and often by four uncredited men (Shannon Hurlburt, Lee Bell, Ethan White and Pedro Gamino on Friday night).

The silk panel -- the size of the stage, literally -- is like an additional, scene-stealing cast member. However, Allen Lee Hughes's expert lighting (adapted for Smuin by Patrice Thomas) turns what might have come off as a mere gimmick or choreographic pretext into a phenomenon of striking beauty. Floating and billowing against an inky backdrop of ocean blue, the fabric is a canvas on which shadows and colors play, becoming as mesmerizing as the Pacific itself. Beneath this graceful behemoth, the choreography for the nine women seems almost an afterthought.

The movements themselves, a lot of predictably undulating arms and hips, offer a kind of hula simulacrum without the strength of that venerable dance form's tradition. Inevitably there are legs swinging in canon, and a line doing the Wave -- yes, just like at the ballpark.

Scattered throughout, nevertheless, are some memorable moments -- Nicole Trerise bodysurfing through rolling breakers of silk, or enfolding in and emerging from swaths; Erin Yarbrough rolling like a kid frolicking in the billows; Vanessa Thiessen holding her own in a solo in the space under the white sheet.

It all makes for a very watery and lovely -- if self-conscious --- piece of theater, though hardly brilliant choreography. Still, it is kind of fun to just zone out and let "Pacific Dances" wash over you.

Augmenting the female ranks for the Feld work are a few new faces, including Kaleena Opdyke and Ballet Tech alumna Jacquelyn Scafidi. The company has also lured former Smuin dancer Dalyn Chew out of retirement for the production.

Opening the program was Smuin's pastoral "Chants d'Auvergne," a series of solos, duets, trios and ensemble pieces set to 13 traditional French songs arranged by Joseph Cantaloube. It was a pleasant way to start the evening, but the whole business could have been shorter by about five songs. The soft, morning hued costumes by Sandra Woodall made for lovely floating effects and Trerise was particularly charming in the lead duet, partnered by James Strong.

The evening closed with Smuin's lurid "Frankie and Johnny" a kind of "Strictly Ballroom" style salsa-flavored ballet that Smuin created back in 1998. Over the top, and loving it, "Frankie and Johnny" has some pretty terrific sets by Douglas Schmidt and fabulous music, courtesy of Cuban artists of the likes of Celia Cruz, Perez Prado and Tito Puente. However, the passion of the music is not quite matched by the onstage hip-swaying.

Still, company mainstay Shannon Hurlburt earned well-deserved applause for his tango with a puppet, and Thiessen and Pedro Gamino got things off to a heated start with their opening tango. The average elevation of the company's leaps will drop considerably when Gamino leaves next season.

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This review first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

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