Smuin Ballet

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For those who like their ballet “lite” as they say in the beer commercials, Michael Smuin could always come up with yet another carefree work. Not that he was unwilling to do otherwise: the choreographer and artistic director who founded his own company after dancing with and being associate artistic director of San Francisco Ballet for many years, also choreographed weightier subjects. But Smuin’s eclectic background in Broadway, film and nightclubs (where he had an adagio act with his wife) formulated a brand of choreography that got him frowned upon by some classicists. His shrewd ability to please an audience can again be seen in this retrospective season at the Joyce. It is indeed the lighter pieces forming the bulk of the programme that come off best.

Smuin choreographed Schubert Scherzo not long before he died in April. In spite of its somewhat limited step vocabulary, it is a pleasant enough classical piece featuring five couples, all in white, bounding around in ensemble and pas de deux. The opening, with its easy travelling variation repeated over and over as the dancers enter, seems like dumbed-down ballet. But it picked up and the sheer vivacity and willingness to please of the dancers carried it, with Courtney Hellebuyck and Ethan White particularly attractive in their sunny, acrobatic pas de deux.

The short solo Bells of Dublin, an Irish step dance to music by The Chieftains, was originally choreographed for tap dancer Sam Webber and was here neatly performed by Shannon Hurlbert. Shinju, a Japanese telling of the Romeo and Juliet story was a piece of pretentious nonsense, tempered by Willa Kim’s richly conceived ideas of traditional Japanese wear. Erin Yarborough-Stewart and Aaron Thayer were touching as the lovers in their ceremonial suicide, but walking around with bent knees in pointe shoes is not particularly convincing unless you happen to be Balanchine and the piece is his take on a Japanese wedding ceremony, Bugaku.

A balmy evening in Brazil restored the Smuin touch, with couples on a seafront dancing to the easy rhythms of samba and bossa nova, the women in their pink and peach two pieces flirting and seductive, the guys easy-going and attentive. I’ve never seen a shake-it-till-you-break-it samba danced on pointe before as Vanessa Theissen did (brilliantly). But you know that if anyone was going to choreograph something such as that, it would be Michael Smuin.

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