Nearly twenty years ago Michael Smuin, when he was associate artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, choreographed a ballet to Mozart’s C Minor Mass. In the current spring season of his own company, Smuin Ballets/SF, he has unveiled a new work that is also set to music of a religious nature. Stabat Mater, which uses the first movement of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, is Smuin’s response to the tragedy of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Reflecting the text (about the weeping figure of Mary lamenting her son, Christ, on the cross), the dance focuses on a central woman who expresses her sorrow over a central male figure who appears then disappears at the end through an opening in the middle of a stone wall that stretches across the back of the stage. Four pairs of dancers, men and women dressed in matching colors reminiscent of the brilliant hues found in stained glass, surround the central couple and fill the stage with movement. The Mary figure is dressed in ruby red so that she stands out among the other dancers.
The piece opens with the four couples on stage. The women fall backwards into the arms of their partners, who move them forwards into a kneeling position. This is repeated so that the reverential nature of the piece is clearly established. The Mary figure then enters through the central opening of the back wall, followed later by the Christ figure. Sarah Barber-Wilson, in the Mary role, has an impassive demeanor, whereas Benjamin Marett, in the Christ role, is the more sorrowful one. Because of Barber-Wilson’s expression, her movements of lamentation didn’t convey the emotional weight Smuin doubtless wanted to have. The piece is serviceable but falls short of making a truly moving statement.
The program opened with Smuin’s Very Merrily, Verdi, a pleasing divertissement for three couples that further mines the Verdi ballet music which Smuin first used many years ago in Q. a V. This ballet does not involve as many physical pyrotechnics as its predecessor.It wants to please, much in the way ballets by Gerald Arpino court audience favor.The movement contains elements of Spanish dance (arms and wrist movements), and Hungarian dance (a male solo involving the characteristic arm gestures and heel clicks). Of the three couples, the central pair of Claudia Alfieri and Rodolphe Cassand, both late of San Francisco Ballet, was the most polished. She has a secure technique (probably the best of the women in the company), and he is particularly good in his turns. Amy Seiwert attacks her role with enthusiasm, as does Shannon Hurlburt. Sarah Barber-Wilson danced with a blank expression, unlike the other cast members, and Benjamin Marett had a perpetual look of fear. Perhaps this was his first time in the role.
The evening also included Smuin’s The Eternal Idol, which is colloquially called “love on a rock” by dancers. Using Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss as the opening image, this dance for a man and a woman clad in flesh-colored leotards brings the sculpture to life in an ardent display of movement. Dalyn Chew was liquid and passionate, but Lee Bell as her partner went through his moves in a lumpy, unmusical way. There seemed to be no chemistry between the two dancers, so the ballet did not create as strong an effect as it should have.
Closing the program was Smuin’s To the Beatles, a pastiche of songs that celebrate love and life. Smuin draws upon street dancing and cute effects in order to ingratiate his work to the audience. He also includes his child prodigy dancer, Roberto Cisneros, in a solo that displays precocious skill. The stage was filled with color, thanks to Sara Linnie Slocum’s use of multi-colored lights and Sandra Woodall’s contemporary version of hippie clothing. The cast spared no effort to please. Claudia Alfieri drew much applause for her acrobatic skills, as did Shannon Hurlburt for his “moon walking” and his tap dancing. Pianist John Bayless contributed impressive baroque-like interpretations of two of the Beatles’ songs: the rest of the music was provided by the original songs on tape. That music is always a pleasure to hear.