Smuin Ballet opened its 25th year with a performance of six short pieces that showed the company moving definitively into new territory. With five dancers joining this year, only one dancer in the 16-member company, Erin Yarbrough-Powell, remains from the time when Michael Smuin was the company’s artistic director.

Smuin Ballet in Smuin's <i>Schubert Scherzo</i> © Keith Sutter
Smuin Ballet in Smuin's Schubert Scherzo
© Keith Sutter

Although the current artistic director, Celia Fushille, was the associate director under Smuin, it’s clear she has a direction of her own, and the company has gradually changed under her leadership. The emseble is redefining – in new terms – what Smuin strove for when establishing the company in 1994. It is becoming a more contemporary ballet company, rather than a fusion of Broadway and ballet.

Each season since Smuin’s unexpected death in 2007 the programming has included his work, and this Dance Series 01 is no exception. The program opened with two of Smuin's pieces, Schubert Scherzo (2007) and The Eternal Idol (1969). The latter was choreographed for American Ballet Theatre, which Smuin joined in 1965.

Both ballets are romantic and lyrical. The Scherzo features five couples, all in white, who dance primarily as couples, synchronously with gendered variations on similar movements: she pirouettes à terre, he spins en l’air. The dancers’ attention is directed toward the audience with smiles and visual focus. It’s well done choreographically, vibrant and sweeping, and well danced by the company. Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood were the lead couple.

The earlier ballet is less conventional. Based on a sculpture by Rodin, a couple unglues itself from a rock that sits center stage. Their lengthy duet is set to that most intimate and Romantic of composers, Chopin. Dressed in flesh-colored unitards, Erica Felsch and Peter Kurta delicately and sensuously portrayed the generative eroticism that the sculpture suggests, but the choreography overlooks the struggle implied by Rodin’s half-finished sculptures, which reflect the sculptor’s dilemma of drawing living humanity out of cold stone.

Smuin Ballet in Ben Needham-Wood's <i>Echo</i> © Keith Sutter
Smuin Ballet in Ben Needham-Wood's Echo
© Keith Sutter
In the program’s second section Ben Needham-Wood’s Echo most connected with Smuin’s The Eternal Idol. It too strives for the iconic and mythological, taking its story from that of Echo and Narcissus. But Needham-Wood’s choreography is brainier and more complex. Narcissus, danced by Peter Kurta, kneels on top of a circular table-like platform that is turned by dancers crouched beneath. In the opening tableau Kurta reaches down below the platform to touch an arm reaching up from below, an effective portrayal of Narcissus reaching into a pool to touch the reflection of his own hand on the water’s surface. Echo, dancer Valerie Harmon, is lifted onto the platform, and she and Kurta dance a cramped and intense duet while the dancers below spin the platform. The dancers lurking in the shadows of the platform and stage can be easily imagined as subterranean forces rising and falling to direct the actions and interactions of the couple. Who loves whom, or who loses whom, is not so clearly defined in this interesting dialog of space and intimacy.

All of the program’s second section was dedicated to showcasing the company dancers’ choreography. This mentoring of choreography amongst his dancers was perhaps Smuin’s greatest gift to them, and Fushille is continuing the project. The other two pieces in the section were Sinfonietta by Rex Wheeler, set to music of Boris Tchaikovsky (not related to Pyotr), and Merely Players, with choreography by Nicole Haskins set to a variety of popular pieces by Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. While Sinfonietta is a neoclassical ballet for five couples, with Tess Lane and Mattia Pallozzi dancing as the lead couple, Merely Players attempts to move into less balletic territory. It opens with a solo by Terez Dean that uses the floor freely. The dancers gave their all, but the overall effect was bland, more a problem of the music than the choreographic potential of Haskins.

Smuin Ballet's Tess Lane and Mattia Pallozzi in Rex Wheeler's <i>Sinfonietta</i> © Keith Sutter
Smuin Ballet's Tess Lane and Mattia Pallozzi in Rex Wheeler's Sinfonietta
© Keith Sutter
No one continues Smuin's desire to combine the popular with ballet better than Trey McIntyre’s Blue Until June, which closed the program. Premiered at the Washington Ballet in 2000, the choreography is set to songs by Etta James. The songs, bluesy with a touch of gospel and a shake rhythm and a smattering of jazz, have all of James’ power and forthright appeal. McIntyre picked up on that with a mixture of moves that flows seamlessly from shivery to crisp to ferocious.

McIntyre, who is also a cultural critic, knows how to infuse steps with an ironic angularity and kinetics that sit just on the other side of punchy. It’s gripping. Ben Needham-Wood performed a pain-soaked solo to “One for My Baby” – his open shirt seemed to have a despairing life of its own. And Ian Buchanan and Peter Kuta performed a poignantly beautiful duet to “Fool that I Am.” The entire company came alive meeting the challenge of McIntyre’s demandingly dynamic ballet. 

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