Smuin Ballet – Frankie & Johnnie/Pacific Dances/Chants d’Auvergne

The big print on the publicity says "Frankie and Johnny" and the little print “Plus Eliot Feld’s ‘Pacific Dances’” but, if you’re talking about quality of product, it really ought to be the other way around. Smuin Ballet’s season opener features the first-ever dance from a choreographer outside the company and, artistically speaking, Feld’s innovative, quirky island idyll stole the show. The audience, however, caught up in the Smuin flash and dash, went wild for “Frankie and Johnny” as well. Go figure.

Frankie and Johnny is dedicated to the memory of Gene Kelly and, if the late, great Hollywood hoofer is somehow aware of that fact, he must be turning over in his grave. Less of an homage than a parody, Smuin’s piece is an over-the-top excuse for a lot of Latin rhythm, smoldering passion and seamy simulated sex. If there is a fine line between haute camp and low-down poor taste it may have been crossed it here. Even the hot (albeit canned) music by the likes of Tito Puente, Perez Prado and Arturo Sandoval and the presence of the always-excellent and usually-classy Celia Fushille-Burke can’t save this one.

Smuin’s Latino take on the old "Ballad of Frankie and Johnny” has Johnny (an agile and excellent James Strong), decked out in a horrible ensemble of purple pants, fuchsia jacket and orange shoes, picking up Frankie (Fushille-Burke), an innocent lass in a white dress, at the seashore (hideous set by Jay Kotcher Studios). If you could tell by his outfit that he was a pimp, you’d be right on the money. By the second scene, Johnny is selling his lady love to four guys hanging around the local bar. Enter the notorious Nelly Bly (here named “Cat” and danced by Nicole Trerise). As Nelly and Johnny slither around, on and over the bar, we catch glimpses of the gang and Frankie in an upstairs room. It’s a little like the rape of Aldonza in Man of la Mancha but a lot less scary and a lot more distasteful.

Let loose at last, the distraught Frankie shoots her lover, is promptly arrested and almost as quickly released, presumably for just cause. Glitter falls on the stage and … everybody mambo!

In contrast, Feld’s 2001 Pacific Dances is an oasis of calm and light, cleverly combining a billowing sheet of white parachute silk with nine women in white old-fashioned swimsuits, toe shoes and white socks and the haunting music of the Hawaiian slack key guitar. The sheet is expertly manipulated by four men in black and later by the dancers to serve as backdrop, clouds, waves and anything else the imagination cares to bring forth. The Smuin women turn in fine ensemble work here, dancing Feld’s hula moves that suggest but never parody the island dances, swimming in the waves of the sheet and breaking out in a goofy, jazzy jitterbug. Erin Yarbrough, Vanessa Thiessen and Trerise contribute outstanding solos, with Thiessen’s hypnotic hula a mesmerizing standout.

The program opened with a very classic curtain raiser, Smuin’s somewhat atypical Chants d’Auvergne set to the folk music adaptations of Joseph Canteloube. This is a pretty dance for six couples that speaks of innocence, springtime and youth. Again, strong solo work from Strong, Thiessen and David Strobbe with the best saved for the last, a stunning pas de deux for Trerise and Strong to “Bailero,” the loveliest work in the collection.

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Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”