Past and present collided Monday night on the Joyce Theater’s stage as San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet returned to New York City for an evening of mixed repertoire. From indie-rock infused ballet to a Michael Smuin drama to a dance for the sake of dance, the evening’s program ran the gamut of Smuin’s aesthetics, providing for an intriguing comparison of what the company was and what it hopes to become.
The evening opened with Trey McIntyre’s Oh, Inverted World, a quirky, gestural ballet set to the music of the indie-rock band The Shins. McIntyre uses some of the band’s most popular songs including “New Slang” as well as a few of its more obscure tunes, making it easy for a Shins fan to get sucked in. And, for the most part, the ballet was successful. The idiosyncratic movement was engaging, but, at times, the dancers’ expressions contradicted the haunting and despondent lyrics of the Shins’ music—slightly playful smirks made for a confusing artistic choice.
The movement was relentless, a true testament to the dancers’ endurance, and they all powered through it with gusto. Every step was performed at maximum capacity. But a few moments of stillness and subtly were welcomed when delivered in the final solo danced effectively by John Speed Orr.
Choreographed in 1977 for the San Francisco Ballet and set to Samuel Barber’s climactic music, Medea is an intense story ballet inspired by Euripides’s tragic Greek play. As many Greek tragedies go, it’s a complex storyline about love, betrayal, and revenge—not terribly far removed from the plots of many romantic ballets. Medea marries the hero Jason, who weds her simply to gain wealth and repute for him and their two sons. His misguided intentions to enter into nuptials with Medea makes him weak to resist the beauty and charm of the King of Cornith’s daughter, Creusa. Outraged by her husband’s betrayal, Medea takes her fatal revenge on all of the characters, ending in a bold tableau of slain bodies strewed about the stage and Medea’s vengeful hand raised to strike down Jason. (In the program notes, Smuin noted a great quote he heard from a Greek shopkeeper, “Inside every Greek woman is a little Medea.”)
The ballet provided a sharp contrast with the edgy, poppy style of McIntyre’s ballet, utilizing more moments of stillness and sustained poses. But, once described in a Dance Magazinge review as “timeless,” it felt passé in comparison and, perhaps, too ‘large’ for the intimate setting of the Joyce; it may have had a more powerful impact in a larger venue, in which the audience could get some space from it and see the melodrama unfold.
The choreography demanded a lot technically from its small cast of dancers and most of them rose to the occasion. Robin Semmmelhack was a commanding Medea and Janica Smith made for a spritely Cresua, but it was truly the two sons, danced by John Speed Orr and Christian Squires, who grabbed the audience’s attention with their well-synchronized passages—as well as their scanty costumes of adorned dance belts.
The relevance to including a Smuin ballet on the program is clear—a company cannot move forward without understanding where it comes from. With such a rich history of over forty ballets by the company’s founding father, it’s important for the company to continue to perform Smuin’s work, paying homage to its roots and a significant mover and shaker in the ballet world. Yet, it was fair to question, “why this specific ballet for this specific venue and program?”
The biggest crowd pleaser of the evening was resident choreographer Amy Seiwert’s Soon These Two Worlds. Set to the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa—a score commissioned specially for the musical ensemble that blended percussive rhythms of African drums and melodic strings—the work was a joyous riff on the classical form and showcased the company both technically and artistically.
Performed by six couples, the ballet was a series of duets and small groups that weaved in and out of each other with light movements—classical shapes and steps tweaked with a jut of the hip or swoop of the arms. From an opening group dance led by the effervescent Susan Roemer and Jonathan Dummar to a carefree pas de deux between Terez Dean and Jonathan Powell to Erin Yarbrough and Jared Hunt’s tender duet, each section transitioned seamlessly into the next and the dancers looked the most at home in the movement. Seiwert incorporated a lot of unison, creating a strong sense of community amongst the dancers. A dancers’ dance, the ballet looked like it was equally as fun for the dancers to perform as it was for the audience to watch. It was a refreshing way to end the evening.
Seiwert choreographed Soon These Two Worlds for the Smuin Ballet three years ago. Now, with her own contemporary San Francisco-based company, Imagery, and Smuin Ballet as well-recognized choreographic vehicles, it will be interesting to see how her choreographic voice—a balletic foundation with a contemporary intention—evolves in the years to come. She’s one to keep an eye on.
The Smuin Ballet continues to perform, with alternate casts, through Saturday, August 18. Click here to purchase tickets or learn more.