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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Smuin Ballet goes "Countryfied"

Also see Richard's reviews of Baby Taj and Ragtime

Smuin Ballet, the Bay Area's internationally acclaimed dance company, opens its 2005-2006 season with the world premiere of Bluegrass/Slyde set to the effervescent music of renowned bassist and MacArthur Fellowship winner Edgar Meyer. Meyer has established himself as a vibrant performer and an innovative composer in a variety of arenas, from classical to bluegrass.

Michael Smuin, who established this company eleven years ago, was one of Broadway's leading choreographers, winning a Tony for the revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes and choreographing such musicals as Sophisticated Ladies and Shogun, The Musical. His ballets are part Broadway, part classical and part pure originality. He calls his ballet company "a guerrilla ballet group" and his chamber-sized group includes some of the best dancers in the nation.

The opening program is an eclectic mix of Broadway, classical and modern dance, beginning with the challenging Romanze set to the music of Antonin Dvorak. This is a collaboration between Smuin and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. It involves a day on film of a sexually repressed Edwardian couple (Catherine Batcheller and Alexander Topciy) carrying on a flirtation in various lovely San Francisco settings. Dancers Celia Fushille-Burke and Easton Smith, dancing on stage mostly unclothed, represent the sexual passions that go on in the minds of the two on screen. It is a very provocative piece of live dancing vs. screen acting.

The second piece is the west coast premiere of Kirk Peterson's The Eyes That Gently Touch with music by Philip Glass. This is modern dance at its finest, involving three couples. Each couple explores their own dreamy sexual desires and when the entire group reassembles, it becomes exciting. Vanessa Thiessen and James Strong are outstanding in their dance while Amy Seiwert and Shannon Hurlburt as one couple and Jessica Touchet and David Strobbe as another give arresting impressions.

The second act of the program is pure Broadway style with a salute to the Beatles called To the Beatles, Revisited. The whole company does wonders with such songs as "Help," "The Long and Winding Road," "Girl," "With a Little Help From my Friends,"" Something," "Day Tripper," "And I Love Her," "Penny Lane," "Michelle" "Come Together," and the grand finally "Sgt. Pepper." This is an entertaining ballet full of show biz, sexy costumes and some great tap dancing by Shannon Hurlburt. The zippy ballet introduces the new member of the group - a great energetic dancer named Benjamin Stewart (two years with the Atlanta Ballet and recent Juilliard graduate). His work is eye-catching and he looks like he is really having fun up on the stage. Robert Cisneros returns from the Boston Ballet School to shine in "With a Little Help from My Friends." This young man has a smile that lights up the whole theatre and his movements are wonderful in this vaudeville routine.

The final act is the world premier of Bluegrass/Slyde with music by Edgar Meyer. Being raised in Ohio about 70 miles from the Kentucky border, I found this to be a combination of real Bluegrass and classical musical. There is a long introduction on film about Bluegrass that really has nothing to do with the ballet itself. Sometimes the Bluegrass music comes through, especially in "Barnyard Disturbance" and "Death by Triple Fiddle." Benjamin Stewart is marvelous in "Woolly Mammoth" and his stay with the Atlanta Ballet must have taught him something about Bluegrass dancing. This ballet is more inner-city than rural. However, there is a little "clog dancing" down by male members of the cast.

Michael Smuin, who says this ballet is a celebration of his mother who loved Bluegrass, along with Scenic Designer James Beaumont has devised an elaborate set with aluminum grid and pole construction. The poles constrict the dancer's movements so they have to continually go around the structures to dance.

Smuin Ballet Program ended on October 6th at the Palace of Fine Arts, Bay and Lyon Streets, San Francisco. It plays the Sunset Center in Carmel October 14 -15 and Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek Feb 10-11 2006. For more information on the Smuin Ballet, call 415-495-2234 or visit www.smuinballet.org.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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