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Smuin Ballet

Dancing for Michael

by Katie Rosenfeld

May 13, 2007 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts, San Francisco, CA

The show must go on. Trite as it sounds, that was the message Sunday night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts, where Smuin Ballet faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of presenting their spring season without Michael Smuin, who died of an apparent heart attack during company class just one short month ago. As Celia Fushille-Burke said during her brief and quietly emotional pre-show comments, the company is dancing for Michael. The audience demonstrated their willingness to be a part of what must have been a difficult performance for the dancers by allowing for some quiet (aside from a few sniffles) reflection during the “In Memoriam” slide show that was the prologue, and by eagerly applauding their performances throughout the evening.

No one could have known that “Schubert Scherzo” would be Smuin’s last ballet, but as a memorial it works well. It is a cheerful, pseudo-classical piece set for five couples dressed all in white, the women in short skirts and bare legs. The choreography is typical Smuin, with wonderful, sometimes comedic surprises interwoven with technically difficult and visually pleasing solo work and partnering. The cast Sunday night included veterans Nicole Trerise and Shannon Hurlburt as well as first-season dancers Courtney Hellebuyck and Kevin Yee-Chan. While perhaps the ensemble work wasn’t as tight as it might have been with a normal rehearsal schedule, the dancers were fully invested in the movements and the occasional wide smile glimmered across each face, moments of sunshine breaking through the clouds.

The balcony scene from Smuin’s award-winning “Romeo and Juliet” was a touching addition to the program, Vanessa Thiessen embodying the character of Juliet with a sweet grace that James Strong’s Romeo just couldn’t resist. There is a fearlessness that is necessary for many of the lifts and turns Smuin regularly peppered his pieces with, and in this pas de deux Thiessen displayed that fearlessness with an added element of youthful exuberance that was thrilling to watch and that would not have been possible without Strong’s reliable, calm partnering. In addition to her gorgeous lines and crystal-clear turns (both of which were featured throughout the evening) her portrayal of everyone’s favorite tragic teenager hit a perfect balance between childish curiosity and mature romantic interest. A lovely non-dancing moment occurred when the couple ran and crouched under the balcony stairs, hiding from the light that turned on in Juliet’s bedroom (“oh no, Nurse is looking for me!”), completing the development of these characters very nicely, especially considering how short the pas really is.

It must have been a tough-if-rewarding night for Amy Seiwert, who danced in “Schubert Scherzo” and “Carmina Burana” while having the added pressure of her own premiere work “Falling Up.” It is clear that for her the loss of her director is also the loss of her mentor. The program notes included this dedication: “To Michael, for the amazing support and encouragement you have given me. I am so sorry I didn’t finish it before you had to go. The impact you’ve had on my life is immeasurable, thank you.” Seiwert’s choreography does have echoes of Smuin; she has followed in his footsteps by creating works that are classically based but develop into surprisingly new and fully accessible dances.

“Falling Up” presents an interesting question: which is more impressive, the creative genius that thought up the choreography or the dancers that turn the steps into moving works of art? The stage setting was muted, almost sleepy. Through the murky space the dancers moved as though gravity was constantly shifting, hanging off each other in near-desperation countered with complete trust. Suspended in the music like the filigreed wings of moths caught in a bead of sap, the four couples moved sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, each dancer unique and yet totally reliant on the others for survival. Robin Cornwall and James Mills together brought a silky, languid quality to their too-brief pas de deux that charmed the audience, and Thiessen again wowed with her fierce, womanly power. Donald White’s piano accompaniment was a part of the magic, providing the pulse and breath for the living being of the work.

Smuin’s “Carmina Burana” is an interesting marriage of medieval and modern. Carl Orff’s music is full of human need and the pure grit of life, evident to the American ear even though it is sung in German, Latin and French. There are many stories told in the lyrics, tales of searching, lost and found love, playful flirtations, friendship and fate. Smuin purposefully left the stories to stand on their own, instead allowing flickers of the characters developing in the music to enrich an otherwise abstract piece. For audience members unfamiliar with the music or with languages other than English, this disconnect is not a barrier, and the intricate patterns and motifs created by the bodies swirling together on the stage provide entertainment and delight. For the small portion of the audience who know the stories being sung, it is perhaps a slight disappointment that the movement is left unanchored.

That said, it is a given that Smuin’s ballets will surprise and enchant. He had a gift for bringing out the humanity of his dancers even as they whip through turns and jumps that most humans consider impossible (witness Seiwert, suspended in mid-air while balanced on two poles held aloft by Shannon Hurlburt and Ethan White – the collective gasp of “how is she doing that?” rippling through the audience was just one of many such moments Smuin has given us.) These are not the ever-pre-pubescent dancers some ballet companies seem to cultivate – and thank God for that! It is such a privilege to watch these men and women relish their strength, unabashedly sensual and fully grounded.

Smuin Ballet’s season continues with performances in Walnut Creek, Mountain View and Carmel. 

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