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Smuin Ballet: Moving Forward, Looking Back

'Objects of Curiosity', 'Duettino', 'Stabat Mater', 'Reinin' in the Hurricane'

by Katie Rosenfeld

October 11, 2007 -- Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA

A rare treat was in store for members of the Smuin Ballet audience who arrived at the Palace of Fine Arts early on Thursday night: long-time company member Shannon Hurlburt, looking only slightly uncomfortable in a suit jacket, gave a brief but informative talk about the company’s Fall program from his perspective. It’s a long-standing joke that dancers don’t enjoy speaking in public, based mostly on the truth that ballet is a visual art, a purely physical expression of emotion. Perhaps Hurlburt has some experience with public speaking; certainly his genial manner endeared him to an audience predisposed to like him. Either way, the glimpse into the thoughts and history of an individual member of this unique company was a great way to gear up for the evening’s performance.

The sub-text for the season is that the company is still dealing with the loss of the irreplaceable Michael Smuin. The company seems closer, more tightly bonded than ever. This program includes Smuin’s 2002 “Stabat Mater,” which was his personal reaction to the events of 9/11. Needless to say, the powerful, mournful piece is doubling as the company’s own requiem for Michael. “It may not be as technically demanding as other pieces, but it’s an emotionally involved 20 minutes – afterward, I feel really drained,” Hurlburt admitted.

Danced to Antonín Dvo?ák’s music of the same name, “Stabat Mater” is full of slow, languid lifts that create the sense that the dancers are stuck in their sorrow, held back by the thick immovability of grief. Dvo?ák’s music and the original Latin text establish that the lead woman (Robin Cornwall) and man (Matthew Linzer) are Mary and Jesus. The knowledge that this was Smuin’s artistic processing of 9/11 turns them into lovers separated by the tragedy at Ground Zero. Add to that Smuin’s sudden death last April and now the woman is the company, the man is Smuin himself.

While “Stabat Mater” is the official “in memory of Michael” piece on the program, it was his “Duettino” (choreographed in 1979 while Smuin was Artistic Director of the San Francisco Ballet) that best reminded us of what we have lost. Hurlburt described the piece as “extremely classical and challenging” and it certainly is both of those things. Amy Seiwert and Ikolo Griffin radiated pure pink balletic bravura, both demonstrating perfect technique in some impressively difficult steps.

At first glance, Griffin is not a commanding presence; his affect is sweet and almost gentle, his slight frame seems too fragile for a Cavalier. But once he starts dancing, watch out – there is a magical monster hiding behind that smile. From the crisp double tours en l’air landing in textbook fifth positions to the 32-count stage-crossing diagonal of brisés volés, his ballon belongs to someone with much stockier legs.

Seiwert, who as a choreographer breaks the ballet mold and reassembles it with decidedly modern edges (her world-premiere “Objects of Curiosity” opened the show and preceded “Duettino”), was appropriately 19th century in her tutu and tiara. Luckily for the audience, this wasn’t a period piece – Seiwert reveled in the truly-Smuin moments, like an arabesque fall into the wings and a goofy tutu-wiggle before a grueling series of relevés and entrechats.

Both dancers seemed to move faster than humanly possible, the clarity of fully extended legs and pointed feet popping through to punctuate the blur. After a pas de deux, a solo each and a teasing coda which included an incredibly difficult à la seconde turn section for Griffin (while turning to the right, he switched spots to the left, moving one quarter backwards for each rotation) the two dancers melted into a slow fish lift as the house erupted into cheers and applause.

Far different in style and presentation, “Objects of Curiosity” has a muted, longing feeling to it that only resolves in the final tableau. There is a voyeuristic thread running through the vignettes. As a trio passes the stage to a duo there is a moment of tension, of watching and waiting that adds to the sense that desire is struggling to free itself from the social rules that keep it at bay.

In one especially poignant section, Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Aaron Thayer cross the front of the stage, heading towards a bright light shining from the wings. Yarbrough-Stewart is transfixed, her head following the light as though held by magnetic force. Thayer tries to pull her away, slowly promenading her back towards him, but even as she rotates from arabesque to à la seconde to développé en avant, her eyes continually track back to the light, her head following. Her curiosity about what, or who, is offstage overpowers her ability to focus on the man right there in front of her.

While Seiwert obviously bases her work in the classical technique, it is decidedly unique and nontraditional. Hurlburt commented that she has created her own vocabulary, and there are dancers who seem perfectly suited for her challenging, off-balance style. Vanessa Thiessen’s intensity and pure strength gives an animal beauty to the movement. Kevin Yee-Chan has the fearlessness of youth and the physical capacity to take on anything, no matter how impossible it appears.

Closing the program was the West Coast premiere of Kirk Peterson’s “Reinin’ in the Hurricane,” which holds a special significance for Hurlburt, who was dancing with the Hartford Ballet when the piece was created there in 1994. As the program notes stated, “Reinin’ in the Hurricane” was a ballet that Smuin loved. In some ways “Hurricane” is Smuin-esque, bringing the audience into a specific place and mood.

Set to music by Gene Autry, David Byrne, Cole Porter, Randy Travis and K.D. Lang, it is pure Americana complete with cowboy hats and fringe. The dancing is boot-stomping, hand-clapping fun, fast and furious with a streak of humor. Koichi Kubo’s opening solo to “Don’t Fence Me In” was buoyant, joyful and set the stage for the hoedown. Cornwell and Olivia Ramsay were adorable in the “Wallflower Waltz,” flirting and teasing their way through girlish steps and finally giving up after being snubbed by every passing man.

While this does not reflect on the actual dancing or performance of this talented group, it must be noted that the costumes for “Hurricane” are unflattering at best. The women’s brightly colored shiny unitards were reminiscent of the turquoise Wranglers worn by the junior high-aged members of the Future Farmers of America in 1994, and together with the cowboy shirts tied at the waist, managed to disfigure the lithe, slender bodies of these gorgeous women. The men were slightly better off in jeans-shaped tights, t-shirts and hats.

This is a marvelously diverse and entertaining program, worthy of Smuin’s legacy. Performances of the Fall Program continue in Carmel, Mountain View and Walnut Creek. And returning to all locations this winter is the ever-popular “Christmas Ballet.” “Michael created something to rival ‘Nutcracker’ – and thank goodness!” Hurlburt half-joked before the show. Certainly Smuin’s “Christmas Ballet” is a treat for the audience and the dancers alike.

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