Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Smuin Ballet Presents a Night of Exquisite Dancing

Also see Richard's reviews of Eubie, A Musical Revue and
Liz Callaway & Jason Graae In Concert

Michael Smuin
The internationally renowned dance company Smuin Ballet is celebrating a noteworthy decade with its 10th Anniversary Retrospective at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This distinguished dance company, under the artistic direction of Broadway choreographer Michael Smuin, is presenting highlights from such critically and popularly acclaimed ballets as Dancin' with Gershwin, Frankie and Johnny, Cyrano, The Beatles and Dances with Songs.

The Smuin Ballet is a great counterpart to the International San Francisco Ballet. Cynthia Robins of the San Francisco Chronicle says it best about Michael Smuin: "Smuin Ballet is his baby, a pared down, lean, mean, agile and athletically theatrical group of 15 dancers that Smuin calls his 'guerrilla ballet' ". The New York Times has called his programs "ingenious." The ballets are part Broadway musical, part classical and part pure originality. The 10th Anniversary Retrospective brings out the best in the company and there is not one dull spot in the two and a half hours of outstanding performances. Every dancer is a gem of appealing excellence. Each has special beauty and charm, dancing to the music of Gershwin, The Beatles, and Sir Elton John from the world of popular music. They also display delicately sensitive elegance to the music of Aaron Copland, Gustav Mahler, John Adams and Carl Orff.

Smuin's evening of dance is interspersed with film highlights of the past ten years of the company's brilliant history. The film portion includes some of the choreography Michael did for the films The Fantasticks and Star Wars: Episode VI plus the television special on PBS celebrating Gershwin's 100th Anniversary. He also choreographed Sophisticated Ladies, Shogun and Anything Goes on Broadway (winning a Tony for this Cole Porter musical). Smuin's ballets are currently in the repertories of major dance companies around the country.

Smuin's terpsichorean artists open with highlights of the ballet Dances with Songs. These are danced to popular standard melodies, such as Nat King Cole singing "Unforgettable" danced by the marvelous Nichole Trerise; Willie Nelson's recording of "Georgia On My Mind," which features the sizzling dancing of Vanessa Thiessen and John DeSerio playing some "down home folks" that is almost an adagio. Celia Fushille-Burke, in a blazing, sexy, tight red dress, is amazing just sliding around in a chair to Peggy Lee's rendition of "Fever." Great and lively dancing by Nichole Trerise, Shannon Hurlburt, Robin Cornwell and David Strobbe to Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville singing "Straighten Up and Fly Right" is a dazzler of precision dancing.

Cyrano's balcony scene to the music of Gustav Mahler, danced by Ceilia Fushille-Burke, Lee Bell and John DeSerio, is ethereal. On the other side of the coin, the "Danza de Jalisco" from Aaron Copland's "Suenos Latinos" is exciting with dancers Gianna Davy, Vanessa Thiessen and Amy Seiwert dressed in brightly colored gaucho costumes with bolas waving about in the their hands. There is a sensuous dance by Celia Fushille-Burke from the suite from "The Blue Angel" with a voice (I believe it was Uta Lumper) singing "Falling in Love Again" plus Kurt Weill's "Johnny" with Lee Bell almost dancing in a Chaplinesque fashion as the Professor. Another comic highlight is Shannon Hurlburt playing a half man and half woman puppet which is called "Chalita /Puppet Tango" from "Frankie and Johnny." It is hilarious and simply amazing. The company ends the first act with the pulsating and vibrant "Oh Happy Day," as recorded by Eric Hawkins Singers.

Smuin's audience gets a sneak preview of an exciting new ballet called "Short Ride" opening the second act. Dancing to the extraordinary music of John Adams, the whole company is fast moving and effervescent. The spectators are treated to a wonderful short documentary on the amazing talent of fifteen year old Roberto Cisneros who considered to be "the Mozart of the dance world." This astonishing talent has been dancing with the company since the age of nine. Roberto is miraculous dancing solo to Paul Simon's "Homeless." This is a scene of pure artistry on the part of this incredible performer who should go on to be one of America's greatest dancers.

The second act is mostly modern standard songs from the legendary George and Ira Gershwin with the great backdrop of a modernistic New York skyline. Shannon Hurlburt does a breathtaking tap combined with ballet to the "Rhythm" medley recorded by the Canadian Brass. The "It Ain't Necessarily So," also danced by Shannon, has a wonderful shadow display based on the words of Ira, showing Jonah and the whale and Moses "found in a stream, oh my." Pedro Gamino and Celia Fushille-Burke are wonderful dancing "Damsel in Distress" by the New Princess Theatre Orchestra.

Outstanding are the two men sensually dancing together a tango "Una Lagrimita." They have great precision in their movements. The Beatles songs are represented with Shannon Hurlburt again wowing the audience with "Help" and the great dancing of Robin Cornwell and Junichi Fukuda assisted by Peter Gamino, John DeSerio and Lee Bell in "Girl." Sir Eldon John's songs "Sorry" and "The Last Song" have excellent and exciting dancers. The whole company brings down the house in the final number, dancing exultingly to the Gershwin brothers' "Slap That Bass" sung by the members of Crazy for You.

The 10th Anniversary Retrospective is "wonderful, marvelous" to quote a Gershwin lyric. For a night of exciting dancing, you just can't beat the awe-inspiring Smuin Ballet. The company will be at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard Street at Third, San Francisco through May 16. The program will be repeated May 28-29 in Walnut Creek at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts and June 2 -6 at the Mountain View Center for the Arts. For tickets call 415-978-2787. For more information please go to

Their regular season opens on October 8th with the world premiere of Fly Me to the Moon with songs from Frank Sinatra and Eliot Field's Pacific Dances.

Photo: Courtesy of Smuin Ballet

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

- Richard Connema

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