San Francisco’s dance performance pickings are sparse in September, for such a cultured, cosmopolitan city, amid the seasonal return of the symphony and the opera. Thank goodness for October and the Smuin Ballet, which provides hungry-for-dance patrons with a feast of a performance. This year Smuin Ballet celebrates its 20th anniversary season. Hailed by Dance Magazine as “one of this country’s most entertaining, original ballet troupes”, they are a lean, talented troupe of eighteen dancers, vibrant with energy, precisely what founder Michael Smuin had been seeking out in 1994. Artistic and executive director Celia Fushille, taking over after Smuin’s death in 2007, has done a stellar job of continuing on with Smuin’s vision.

© Keith Sutter
© Keith Sutter

Saturday afternoon’s performance, entitled XXtremes, commenced with Dear Miss Cline, set to songs by 1950s country pop legend Patsy Cline. It was an energetic romp of a ballet, complete with crinoline-skirted costumes and flirtatious exchanges right out of a social scene in the late 50s. Choreographer Amy Seiwert was a dancer under Michael Smuin, and her own choreography seems to echo his Broadway-tinted, crowd-pleaser side. Standouts amid the ten pieces included “Tra le la le la, Triangle” with Erica Felsch, Weston Krukow and Aidan DeYoung. Their performances were technically solid, nuanced and playful. Felsch, in particular, displayed a sense of mischievous delight in the role that was palpable and infectious. “There He Goes” featured a strong performance by Jo-Ann Sundermeier as she danced with three men, arms ever reaching out for the lone fourth male, dancer Jonathan Dummar, whose commanding stage presence and expansiveness of movement were a pleasure to watch. A pleasure, as well, to see the talented Pauli Magierek, former soloist with the San Francisco Ballet, grace the stage in “She’s Got You” and “Stop the World & Let Me Off”, with her clean, classical lines and gorgeous extensions.

Jirí Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land, the second ballet, was created in 1974 and dedicated to the legacy and memory of his beloved mentor John Cranko, who had just died. Love, loss and longing are all rendered in soulful, sensuous fashion, with recorded piano music by Leoš Janáček serving as an irresistible accompaniment. The ballet’s six dancers all rose to the challenge Kylián’s choreography represents: the ability to maintain classicism while concurrently letting go of it, relaxing into the choreographer’s flowing, organic style. Particularly successful was Part 4, featuring dancers Jane Rehm, Joshua Reynolds and Jonathan Dummar. The synergy they created was, for me, the show-stealer, that delicious hold-your-breath period where you are not merely watching three dancers performing, you are watching Art, which has transcended its medium. The silence in the audience was so electric, I knew my fellow audience members were equally riveted. The final few poses that completed the section, the three bodies interconnecting, forming different shapes like a human kaleidoscope image, were flawlessly executed. I could hear fellow patrons sighing in satisfaction and awe. Tears rose to sting my own eyes. It was that good. It was everything you hope an arts performance will be. It was a gorgeous tribute to Kylián, to Cranko, to the late Michael Smuin, whose own untimely and tragic death in 2007 surely still colors the company’s performances and memories.

Further tribute to Smuin was paid through the performance of his acclaimed Carmina Burana, and was it ever a marvel to watch, featuring the über-dramatic music of 20th-century composer Carl Orff, cinematic lighting, curlicues of fog billowing from the wings, vibrant unitard costumes of a rich burgundy color from the waist down (more skin-toned from the waist up on the women, giving the whole ensemble a bare-chested look). The opening sequence, commencing in silence, brings out four females, traveling in and out of spotlights, who eventually make their way to the darkened center. And then, an instant later, you have it: music, lights, the pageantry of what seems like a sumptuous pagan ritual, the tight bud of a woman being held aloft, tucked into herself, supported by four sets of burgundy-clad male legs and bare feet, an ebb and flow of motion as they raise and lower her. The moment, the image, set to Orff’s gorgeous “O Fortuna” (if you heard it, you’d instantly recognize it), is so fantastic and sensuous, it all but throws you back into your seat, and you know you’re in for a treat, a wild ride, a satisfying performance. 22 vignettes’ worth.

It seems to me that a lot of people go to the San Francisco Ballet because they enjoy the ritual of “going to the ballet”. People go to the Smuin Ballet, I will venture to say, because they love dance. They love watching the art. They love the Smuin Ballet because the venue and the program are family-friendly, “come as you are” friendly. It’s a thrill to discover this local treasure. This is the kind of company you can’t help but fall in love with and root for. I will most decidedly be back.

Performances of XXtremes continue through Saturday 12 October.

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