Impressions: Smuin Ballet Brings Tales of Fuming Jealousy and Adolescent High-Jinks
There is something refreshing about this small, San-Francisco-based ballet company and the way it has soldiered on after the sudden death of its founding choreographer Michael Smuin in 2007. The dancers are good, their demeanor frank and open. They look like they want to be there. As a choreographer, Smuin strove to make dances that were accessible to the general public, driven by stories, music, dramatics. He choreographed for ballet companies, but also for Broadway and the movies. From what little I’ve seen, his ballets are a bit hokey—emphatic in construction, declamatory in style, and not particularly original—but they’re honest, and based on a solid knowledge of stagecraft and sturdy ballet technique. They form the backbone of the company’s repertoire, but not its lifeblood—Smuin had the good sense to bring in choreographers from the outside in order to vary the mix. This, of course, has been the company’s salvation since Smuin’s death. Now, there is a choreographer-in-residence, Amy Seiwert.
In its current stint at the Joyce (August 13-18), the company is performing three works: Trey McIntyre’s Oh, Inverted World, from 2010; Soon These Two Worlds, by Amy Seiwert (2009), and the requisite Smuin opus, Medea, made in 1977 for the San Francisco Ballet. About Medea, what can one say? It is territory that has been plumbed, with greater incisiveness and style, by Martha Graham in Cave of the Heart. It was a mistake on Smuin’s part to use the self-same music, Samuel Barber’s Medea suite, to cover much the same ground. As Smuin’s ballet opens, Medea’s cape—vast and purple—literally seethes, billowing smoke from beneath its silky folds. The men—Jason and his two sons—wear embarrassing thongs baring much of their derrières and engage in manly horseplay. (I did enjoy the javelin lesson, so soon after the Olympics.) Jason (Joshua Reynolds) and the young princess Creusa entwine in a lustful duet, though, it must be said, the dancer playing Creusa (Janica Smith) was more steely than seductive. Robin Semmelhack, as Medea, flashes angry glances; if only looks could kill, we might be spared the bloody ending. It’s all a bit silly, like watered-down Graham crossed with old-time Bolshoi heroics: giant one-handed lifts, clenched fists, heroic grimaces. It doesn’t help that Smuin’s amiable, athletic dancers—who basically look like good all-American kids—seem completely lost in Smuin’s histrionic world. Glare as she might, Robin Semmelhack does not look like she could mortally wound a fly, let alone throttle her rival with a rope and stab her children to death in a fit of vengeful spite.
The best work of the evening, and the one that most suited the dancers, was surely Oh, Inverted World, by Trey McIntyre. There’s a plainspoken-ness to his work that I’ve always found refreshing. His dances draw their tone from the people with whom he collaborates: young, dynamic, normal but conflicted, with the particular vulnerabilities of the young. Inverted World is set to songs by the indie-rock band The Shins; I couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded like just what you would expect, slightly plaintive, energetic expressions of teenage angst and enthusiasm. The dance reflected these feelings perfectly: boys and girls in simplified sports attire, cavorting and pairing up vigorously, their antics tempered by the occasional eruption of awkwardness and misanthropy. As in Rebel Without a Cause, loneliness and rage lay just below the surface of collegiality and horseplay. The boys wore running shorts and striped athletic socks, with no shirts; the girls, brief, metallic-colored dresses one might don to play tennis or attend cheerleading practice. Various themes emerged—conformism, lonlinesss, exclusion, courtship, the fickleness of romance—but McIntyre, as usual, revealed his knack for weaving his subject matter through the dance unobtrusively, and mostly in dance terms. He didn’t overplay his hand. He has the ability to use ballet technique (off-pointe, in this case) in an off-the cuff, non-academic manner. (His way of removing any hint of courtliness from ballet reminds me of Twyla Tharp.) The dancing here was dynamic, every-changing, fluid—if anything, one sometimes pined for a moment to breathe. Only in the final, meditative solo, danced by a soulful John Speed Orr, did McIntyre slow things down enough for the the choreography to leave a lasting afterimage in our mind. “Who am I?” the lone dancer seemed to ask , like a boy dancing alone in his bedroom with the door locked. We felt for him and wished him well.
The program ended with Soon These Two Worlds, by Amy Seiwert. It’s one of those “ballets with a twist,” a pleasant, anodyne concoction in which the dancers perform in a relatively straight-up academic style with a few funky touches thrown in. A sensual sway of the hips, say, or a repeated rolling gesture for the arms, a kind of tropical flavoring equivalent to sprinkling a hint of chili-pepper on a classic dish. The music, drawn from the Kronos Quartet’s recording Pieces of Africa, is in the same vein, basically classical harmonies set over an African beat. Add vibrant, colorful costumes–if possible, with long, flowing skirts—and voil
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