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Jack Anderson

Smuin's Crafty Eclecticism

Smuin Ballet
JoyceTheater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
August 13 and 14 at 7:30 p.m., August 15 at 2 and 8 p.m., August 16 and 17 at 8 p.m., August 18 at 2 and 8 p.m., $44
Tickets: (212) 242-0800
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, August 15, 2007.

L-R: Kevin Yee-Chan, James Mills, Ikolo Griffin and Ethan White in Smuin's "Schubert Scherzo." Photo by Thomas Hauck.

Michael Smuin, the San Francisco choreographer who died unexpectedly this April at the age of 68, was an eclectic who prized the virtue of craft. He could turn out ballets on a surprising variety of themes and had the compositional skill to make many of them worth watching. If few were profound, few were stupid. The dance world always needs choreographers with such craft.

The program that his Smuin Ballet brought to the Joyce, attested to his eclecticism. Every ballet looked different. That in itself was good. Unlike the programming of some groups, both classical and modern, these days, Smuin Ballet did not merely follow one high-energy study with another high-energy study.

In "Schubert Scherzo," Smuin celebrated his classical roots with a ballet for five bounding couples to the scherzo from Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C Major ("The Great"). The music rushes ahead, as does the choreography. But whereas Schubert manages to unite speed and momentum with a sense of weight and gravity, Smuin has been unable to find kinetic equivalents for these qualities. As a result, the music constantly overwhelms the choreography which, conceivably, might have seemed quite agreeable if it had been created to the scherzo of a piece of chamber music. But Schubert's Symphony No. 9 is known, for good reason, as "The Great."

Three ballets honored three different cultural traditions. The least successful was "Shinju," based on an 18th-century Japanese play about doomed lovers and set to a score by Paul Chihara that combines ancient Japanese court music with modern instrumental and electronic sounds. As told by Smuin, the story is often incomprehensible and the choreography, inspired by Noh and Kabuki theater as well as ballet, looks stilted, with crooked gestures repeatedly punctuated by stiff poses.

Fortunately, the other ballets were well-made entertainments. Although it can occasionally be employed as a term of disdain, "entertainment" is not a dirty word if a work purporting to be entertaining turns out to be so. These frolics were reminders that, when he was young, Smuin and his wife Paula Tracy performed in night clubs when they were between ballet jobs. Smuin surely learned some lessons about how to attract and hold an audience's attention.

Shannon Hurlburt in "Bells of Dublin." Photo by Terry Gannon.

"Bells of Dublin," a jaunty solo for Shannon Hurlburt to music by the Chieftains, borrowed from tap and Irish step-dancing. Focusing his body toward the ground, Hurlburt made his tap steps crisply articulated. And when he did occasionally rise from earth, his little jumps resembled choreographic exclamation points.

"Obrigado, Brazil," to Brazilian music from Yo-Yo-Ma's recording of that title, could have been taking place at a very agreeable tropical resort. Ensembles were spirited without being brassy, and there were pleasant vignettes: for instance, a duet for Matthew Linzer and a capricious Courtney Hellebuyck; another duet, danced with easygoing abandon by Nicole Trerise and Aaron Thayer, and a witty trio in which Erin Yarbrough-Stewart was courted, with unexpected results, by Kevin Yee-Chan and Hurlburt.

The staff of the Smuin Ballet has announced that the troupe will continue in the future, reviving works by Smuin and staging pieces by other choreographers. It is hard to imagine what the company might look like, but easy to wish it well.

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