Smuin still the life of his dance company
By Rebecca Milzoff
Almost one year ago, the Smuin Ballet came to the Joyce and performed a program much like the one that opened last night: a cornucopia of works by Michael Smuin himself, which is to say not quite highbrow ballet, but a pleasing blend of pieces showcasing his appealing young dancers, ending with the jovial Mr. Smuin coming onstage to accept congratulations.
This year’s production is quite similar, with one noticeable exception: Mr. Smuin, who passed away in April, and created many of these works shortly before his death. Based on the viscerally enthusiastic audience response to the works on display a trademark at Smuin Ballet performances it seems he would have been happy with the results.
A Smuin world premiere, “Schubert Scherzo,” opened the program, and the piece showcased many of the finer aspects of his choreography. Five couples, all clad in white, moved in and out of classic partnering, the women often whirled offstage while still in mid-lift, seemingly floating into the wings. While Mr. Smuin’s steps stayed far clear of complication, a few witty touches Fosse-esque inversions for the girls, a lift in which a ballerina literally climbs up her partner’s back en pointe made for an overall buoyant spirit which well matched the exuberant music from Schubert’s Ninth Symphony.
In stark contrast to the classical look of the “Scherzo,” Shannon Hurlbut next performed a brief tap solo, “Bells of Dublin,” which might best be described as Riverdance-meets-Astaire. The piece itself is a trifle a nod to Mr. Smuin’s past Broadway choreography, and perhaps intended as a palate cleanser on the program but Mr. Hurlbut, who brought a calm swagger to the “That’s Life” section of Mr. Smuin’s Sinatra suite “Fly Me To the Moon” last year, executed each slide with panache. Well, as much panache as could be expected when tap-dancing to the Chieftains.
The centerpiece of the evening, “Shinju,” was certainly the most compelling work of the night. Inspired by Mr. Smuin’s travels to Japan, this interpretation of an 18th century tragic legend could have easily slid into caricature, as the dancers, all dressed in elaborate Kabuki- and Noh-inspired costume, enacted the story. Thanks to strong dancing and acting from the leads, Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Aaron Thayer, the dance retained a porcelain tension and barely restrained sense of sadness, which made its violent ending all the more jarring. Ms. Yarbrough-Stewart and Mr. Thayer, two of the company’s more understated but technically proficient dancers, performed with an ease and absence of pretense which allowed Mr. Smuin’s steps origami-like partnering, flexed feet accentuating woodblock taps which interrupted the icy, ambient music to shine through.
Any sense of stillness remaining after this chilling piece was quickly broken with a signature Smuin closer, another new work called “Obrigado, Brazil,” which recalled more a free-form dance party than a ballet. Here, as in most of the program, the dancers smile a bit too much, even for such a festive piece. Combined with the frequent pose-iness of Mr. Smuin’s choreography, this can make the company seem at times like a well-trained dance team performing a routine.
Still, as the dancers swiveled to the samba in silhouette, all snaking arms and spritely leaps as “Obrigado” closed, it was hard not to clap along. The best of Mr. Smuin’s work, of course, makes his audience feel as if they’ve been included in a fabulously fun party, not a stiff three-act ballet. It’s heartening to see that, even without Mr. Smuin, his company is still celebrating.