Cancel those airline tickets! Smuin Ballets San Francisco circles the globe in its third program of the spring season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Audiences can visit Russia, Japan and Mexico – with a brief musical side trip to South Africa – without ever having to leave their seats.
Whatever you pack for the trip, believe me, it won’t be equal to Willa Kim’s costumes for "Les Noces." These have got to be the best-dressed Russian peasants on record, the men in brocade vests and neat red boots, the women in velvet and lace and headwraps, looking like those little Russian nesting dolls.
Alison Jay was a lovely bride (in white, of course) and Easton Smith disarming as her shy, awkward groom. The always-wonderful Celia Fushille-Burke danced the mother of the bride.
I have seen a remounting of the original 1922 Nijinska version of this ballet (in Oakland, as I recall) and, if Smuin’s does not quite surpass it, it compares favorably. The steps are stylized, in keeping with the syncopated rhythms of the Stravinsky score. A particularly nice touch came at the end of the wedding festivities when, as the stage lights dim, the windows in the house in the backdrop light up, symbolizing the new life the couple will establish.
"Les Noces" does seem to go on and on but that is Stravinsky’s fault, not Smuin’s. Audiences have been enjoying this Russian wedding since the days of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the honeymoon doesn’t seem to be over yet.
A less fortunate pair of lovers is at the heart of Smuin’s "Shinju," a work based on a Japanese legend and originally choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet. The unhappy pair — danced by the stone-faced Dalyn Chew and guest artist Joral Schmalle on loan from the Oakland Ballet — have their alliance thwarted by malevolent forces and commit a double suicide.
Here again the dancing was highly stylized, with touches of Kabuki and Noh theater thrown in. Particularly effective were the opening slow-motion pas de deux, Schmalle’s solo and a really terrific fight with bamboo sticks between the good guys and the bad guys.
The good guys win (beating off a great trio of ruffians) but not for long. The mysteriously menacing villains (Fushille-Burke again and Robert Sund) force the lovers apart in the end and the final death scene, witnessed by the corps, gives us the only truly dramatic realistic movement in the piece.
"Shinju" is an interesting work, lovely to look at but difficult to listen to. Kim’s costumes and decor are utterly gorgeous but Paul Seiko Chihara’s score leans heavily on woodblocks, scraped strings, ghostly voices and silence. If you concentrate on what you are seeing, you can survive what you hear.
The score is one of the chief delights of "Homeless," a brief solo which Smuin made on new company member Hernan Piquin, an Argentinean native who dances it to an athletic fare-thee-well. It is set to a section of Paul Simon’s famed "Graceland" recording, sung by the fabulous South African group Ladysmith Black Mombazo.
With no program, no backdrop and the dancer in plain black stretch shorts, this could be about the anguish of homelessness in Soweto or the streets of San Francisco. Doesn’t matter, it’s just as powerful either way.
The program closed with "El Salon Mexico," the exuberant finale from Smuin staple "Suenos Latinos," set to Aaron Copland’s familiar score. This is the choreographer at his witty and inventive best. A whole caravan of Mexican stereotypes cavorts across the stage. You have your lazy guys under big sombreros, your flirtatious senoritas, Day of the Dead skeletons in feather boas, tutus and pearls, a bull on a bicycle who gores the matador – actually winning for once – and a pair of revolutionaries, winningly danced by Fushille-Burke and Rodolphe Cassand.
The company obviously enjoys this one and danced it with gusto. And, when the curtain came down, with a shower of confetti and the waving of flags, their enthusiasm was amply returned.
Michael Smuin joined in the bows, as is his custom, further underlining the impression that this company is a great big ego boost for an artist with a great big ego. The occasional programming of a work by somebody else would go a long way toward dispelling that image and expanding the range of what is rapidly growing into a very fine troupe.