You’ve watched So You Think You Can Dance and other television reality shows configured around dance. But you have never been to a live performance. Well, if I were going to introduce a newbie to the art form, I would definitely choose Smuin Ballet for a first-timer outing. The fall season opener had something for everyone: tangos, Rodin sculpture, a hint of the neoclassic, and Patsy Cline.
The spotlight for this season opener is the world premiere of Dear Miss Cline by Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert, which she has described as her most “Smuin-esque” piece to date. Set to ten classic Patsy Cline recordings, it is a sometimes comic, often touching, exploration of interpersonal relationships. The company has a real winner with this one. A big plus were the cheerful costumes by Jo Ellen Arntz (with Amy Seiwert). They captured the period of the late 1950s/early 1960s without descending into cliché-ridden “Hee Haw” country kitsch.
Especially affecting was “She’s Got You,” cited by Johnny Cash as one of his 100 Essential Country Songs. Susan Roemer, partnered by Jared Hunt, Jonathan Dummar, and Shannon Hurlburt, encapsulated the real-world dilemma of a woman who consistently chooses unavailable men.
But, this is still ballet at the Smuin House, so the dance doesn’t linger on the sad stuff. Back to the party, and a good time is had by all. And the audience leaves the theater humming the choreography.
Dear Miss Cline capped off a program that opened with Michael Smuin’s Tango Palace. For those who have seen documentaries on Buenos Aires street dancers, this will seem a somewhat tame outing. However, in the early part of the twentieth century, the tango migrated from Buenos Aires to Paris, where it was refined into the “salon” version we see today on ballroom dancing shows. Tango Palace is a hybrid of the two — more of a deconstruction than a literal interpretation.
The first part, danced by the women in heeled shoes is reminiscent of dance performances seen in night clubs up through the post-World War II period. In the second section, the women appear en pointe, further distancing itself from the original and moving the production toward the world of classical ballet. Although Tango Palace showcases the charm and wit of the company dancers, it is in the duet for Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar that the ballet sizzles.
After the first intermission, the evening took a more serious tone. A year after the tragic events on September 11, 2001, Michael Smuin choreographed Stabat Mater (Dvorak) as a tribute to the human spirit in times of adversity. To honor the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the company is reprising this beautiful ballet for the fall/winter program.
Artists often are tempted when responding to events of this magnitude to capture the “bigness” of the moment, as seen in the recent opera The Heart of a Soldier. What makes Stabat Mater succeed is that the ballet portrays one family’s loss against the backdrop of the large-scale episode. The emphasis is on the personal tragedy and how people gather themselves together and transcend their grief. It takes a delicate approach to convey these emotions without engaging in serious scenery chewing. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and John Speed Orr communicated the loss and grief as a community and family tragedy, not a literal interpretation of the World Trade Center calamity — suggesting that these feelings are universal, not specific to one event.
Although their poignant portrayals were the centerpiece, the strength of this ballet is in the work for the corps. No clacking of pointe shoes here — the ballet kept to the reverential and hushed tone by having the dancers performing on demi-pointe. The ensemble handled the deceptively simple-looking choreography beautifully, always maintaining the flow and intent of the work. Everything was in place, nothing jarred. The tight-knit company, without exception, performed with a true unity of purpose and style.
The evening’s second section concluded with Smuin’s sensuous Eternal Idol. The eleven-minute duet, originally created for American Ballet Theatre in 1969, has been popular with audiences since its beginning. Inspired by the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin, and choreographed to the slow movement of Chopin’s F Minor Piano Concerto, the ballet begins with two entwined figures posed on a giant boulder. Robin Cornwell and Jonathan Dummar fluidly embodied the statues as they came to life, closing this section on a life-affirming note.
It is worth noting that the company has succeeded in keeping alive Michael Smuin’s refreshingly theatrical spirit without turning into a frozen-in-time tribute, something that has killed other companies. Under the direction of Celia Fushille, new works and dancers have been integrated seamlessly into the existing company and the Smuin repertoire, honoring the company founder without becoming pale carbon copies of what came before.
Smuin Ballet’s Fall/Winter program, including Dear Miss Cline, Eternal Idol, Stabat Mater, and Tango Palace will be at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre through October 1. If you miss it, have no fear, you can see these ballets in Walnut Creek, Mountain View, and Carmel in February & March 2012.
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St. at Bay Street, San Francisco