Review: Smuin Ballet alive and well

As Managing Director Dwight Hutton recently announced, “Smuin Ballet is alive and thriving.”

The company founded by Michael Smuin, who died suddenly in April, is indeed carrying on in its creator’s spirit, as clearly seen in the opening concert of the troupe’s 2007-08 season at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco.

Sunday evening’s show revealed at least one element for which the sometimes controversial choreographer was known: his ability to combine classic and show biz styles into sincerely crowd-pleasing performances. The fall program, its four pieces swiftly blending distinct styles, proved no exception.

Company dancer Amy Seiwert’s world premiere “Objects of Curiosity” — the most thought-provoking piece in the lineup — employed classical moves but had a thoroughly contemporary feel, due to music by Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso which jumped abruptly from classical to jazz to folk. Much of the dance featured interactions among and between couples, whose fluidity and balance were notable. But the ochre-colored leotards with geometric designs weren’t the most appealing costumes.

Smuin’s 1979 “Duettino,” set to grand music by Verdi, on Sunday featured Seiwert and Ikolo Griffin in a lovely traditional, yet lighthearted, dance. The technically astute performers also appeared to be having fun in their fuchsia and white tutus and tights.

“Stabat Mater,” a 2002 dance by Smuin set to Dvorak’s emotive music of the same name (the Latin “Stabat Mater” refers to Mary suffering as she watched the death of Jesus on the cross), was a completely satisfying, almost cathartic piece, again featuring couples in gorgeous flowing combinations.

Smuin choreographed the piece in the wake of 9/11; while that notion wasn’t specifically clear during the performance, what was clear is that the dance offers an emotionally uplifting feeling of coming together after dealing with death and trauma. The lead couple, Vanessa Thiessen and Aaron Thayer, set the tone for the fulfilling performance.

Kirk Peterson’s 1994 piece, “Reinin’ in the Hurricane,” a six-segment cowboy romp set to popular country songs sung by Gene Autry, Cole Porter, David Byrne, Randy Travis and k.d. lang, sassily rounded out the show. The dance, a West Coast premiere, was dedicated to Smuin’s memory. Peterson, a longtime friend and associate of Smuin, said Smuin had told him he wanted to present the piece.

From the opening jauntiness ofKoichi Kubo’s solo in “Don’t Fence Me In,” to a reprise of the song featuring the entire company, the dance was a bouncy delight. Robin Cornwell and Olivia Ramsay stood out in the “Wallflower Waltz” as did Courtney Hellebuyck and Shannon Hurlburt in “Big, Big Love.”

In December, the company returns to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Mountain View Center for the Arts with its popular Christmas Ballet.

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