Smuin Ballets/SF opened its seventh season with two hits and a near miss. Revivals of two of Michael Smuin’s finest ballets, the stunning “Medea” and “Carmina Burana,” framed a somewhat disappointing centerpiece, the world premiere of “Sapphire Rain.”
Set on four couples, to the music of New Age harpist Andreas Vollenweider, “Sapphire Rain” is little more than a divertissement. Lots of stage smoke, thunder and bird calls usher in the dancers, costumed in spangles like so many gorgeous birds of paradise. There is no program to this piece, no meaning but a strong suggestion that the whole thing takes place in a rain forest (not the endangered kind).
With the exception of a sexy tango for Celia Fushille-Burke and Hernan Piquin — company standouts in everything they do — there was nothing new here. It all seemed rather self-conscious and not quite worth the trouble it took to stage it.
Not so “Medea,” a stark, powerful retelling of the ancient Greek myth in the language of dance. This is a wonderful work, with a twisting of the tale that boils it down to its essence: betrayal, jealousy and revenge. In Smuin’s version, Medea’s rival is not burned up in a poisoned robe but strangled, with the help of the two sons. Neither does Medea cook the little boys into a stew for their father to innocently consume. She merely follows them offstage with a knife, then displays their bodies to compound Jason’s grief. Not exactly Euripedes but it works.
Fushille-Burke was a regal Medea; Piquin a powerful Jason. Shannon Hurlburt and Joral Schmalle made marvelous (if somewhat large) boys and Claudia Alfieri was the vain, flirtatious, doomed princess. The steps were evocative of the period, without parody, and the emotions, high as they were, expressed without hyperbole. An unforgettable image was that of Jason mourning his dead princess-bride at one side of the stage, as Medea bids a loving farewell to the sons she intends to murder at the other. This was a perfect translation from drama to dance, wonderful theater either way.
Of note is the lighting design of Sara Linnie Slocum for this, and the other ballets on the program. Who needs sets with a brilliant red or white backdrop of light, the dancers whirling in innovative circles of spotlight? Slocum’s dramatic lighting is an integral part of the dance language in these ballets. It was especially effective in the second half of the program, the long, lyrical setting of Karl Orff’s 1937 secular cantata, “Carmina Burana.” Here, Slocum used patterned spots to create interest on the floor. The colors and patterns changed with the mood of the dance.
As for “Carmina,” you either love it or hate it. It is music that cries out to be danced. Smuin’s is one of the best of many outstanding interpretations. The lovely blonde Allison Jay dominated the opening section as Fortune’s fool, Piquin was wonderful as the suffering Roasted Swan and the choreography for the men was exceptionally strong in the tavern section. Then it was Fushille-Burke again in a lovely celebration of Spring, innocence and love. The whole thing comes full circle with a reprise of “O Fortuna” at the end; Jay lifted high as the entire ensemble comes together in tableau.
Of course, it’s necessary to know the music to put all this context into it. Smuin’s is a totally abstract setting, with only hints of conflict, suffering, flirtation or romance. Nevertheless, so arresting are his dance images that the lengthy work seems to fly by. The only complaint that it is over too soon.