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Smuin Ballet - 'Revealing the Bridge,' 'Shinju,' 'Obrigado, Brazil'

by Katie Rosenfeld

October 14, 2006 – Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

On a foggy autumn afternoon in San Francisco, Smuin Ballet set out to transport the audience first into a Claude Monet painting, then to 18th century Japan, and finally to a sultry Brazilian evening complete with swaying palm trees and bikini-clad women. Based on the enthusiastic reaction of the not-quite-full house, the company accomplished their goal.

It is the cohesive, family feeling of this company that brings audiences back for more. The dancing is reliably precise and entertaining, the dancers themselves fully invested in every step, every port de bras. This investment paid off in full for Amy Seiwert’s world premiere “Revealing the Bridge,” arguably the surprise hit of the show. Michael Nyman’s string quartet no. 2, according to the program notes, is written in 4/4, 5/4, 6/8, 7/4 and 9/8 time. The notes seemed to cascade over each other in patterns too complicated to count, but Seiwert’s choreography met and matched every note. The result is a gloriously impossible, brilliant work that combines ensemble dancing with solos and duets (Erin Yarbrough and Aaron Thayer moved as one body in a gorgeously languid pas de deux that drew cheers from the audience) to form a celebration of unique, surprising movement.

Michael Smuin has a knack for creating pieces that live and breathe in an honest representation of different environments, allowing his dancers to fill out their characters with human eccentricities and foibles. The result is a sense that the audience is in on the joke, connected to the artistry instead of separated from it. This was especially true for the piece that closed the show, Smuin’s world premiere “Obrigado, Brazil.” Here were all the characters you would expect to find in a Brazilian dance hall: sweet ingénue, flirtatious best girlfriends, and cocky young men. The combination of music, costume and scene was so compelling that you could practically smell the sunscreen and taste the caipirinhas.

Smuin’s “Shinju,” created in 1975, also captured the general atmosphere of an ancient Japanese court with all its stately elegance and rigid rules for acceptable behavior. Especially challenging for dancers and audience alike were the long stretches of silence between notes; the sparse movements that required exacting precision from the dancers also demanded a level of concentration from the audience that was perhaps more than the Saturday afternoon crowd was prepared for. The sudden, violent end of the lovers’ lives was a shock after the stylized simplicity of the earlier acts; when the red streamers symbolizing their lifeblood spurted forth there were gasps of surprise, the audience reaction coming from a more visceral, unfettered place than the usual applause.

It is both a blessing and a curse that Smuin Ballet is a fairly small company. With only 16 dancers, no one gets a break. For the dancers this can be a curse: to dance in three incredibly diverse works with barely enough time in between to change costumes and hairstyles and reapply lipstick, let alone gulp down some water. It is a real treat for the audience, though, to get to see the same dancers change styles like chameleons and yet remain believable throughout. This allows the audience to feel as though they really know the dancers personally, far more so than is possible for companies with 60 or more on their roster.

It was a busy afternoon for everyone, especially for Vanessa Thiessen, who carried the bulk of the tragic storyline in “Shinju,” (supported by James Strong’s reliable partnering and physical commitment to the movement), in addition to dancing all of Seiwert’s challenging “Revealing the Bridge” and contributing in no small amount to the flavor of “Obrigado, Brazil” with her dazzling smile and teasing footwork.

Jessica Touchet was also featured in both “Revealing the Bridge” and “Obrigado, Brazil,” her sustained arabesques and floating, controlled turns showcased to perfection by Seiwert’s complicated choreography especially.

The three new members of the company, Ikolo Griffin, Courtney Hellebuyck and Kevin Yee-Chan held their own among the company veterans, Griffin setting the tone for “Obrigado, Brazil” with a joyful solo, Hellebuyck sparkling in a duet with Strong in “Revealing the Bridge,” and Yee-Chan competently rounding out the corps in all three pieces.

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