Michael Smuin, who was director of the San Francisco Ballet from 1973 until 1985, later established his own company, now celebrating its fifth anniversary season. Smuin Ballets/SF is a company expressing the singular artistic vision of its choreographer in a parallel manner to the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. A Tony and Emmy Award winner, Smuin has choreographed extensively for the Broadway stage and for television, as well as for more purely dance venues.
In the current season at Yerba Buena, Smuin is presenting the world premiere of Chants d’Auvergne, a ballet set to his selection of a dozen of Canteloube’s songs based on folk melodies, danced to recordings by Kiri Te Kanawa and Victoria de los Angeles. This is pure dancing, without story or plot. Mr. Smuin delivers a charming and gracefully choreographed bon bon here. Highly classical in approach, nothing happens on stage that could not have happened a century ago. Innovation is not on the agenda in this piece.
The dancers in Chants d’Auvergne acquitted themselves well. Noted in particular, Dalyn Chew, a dancer who seems to be all arms and legs, utilizes those resources with superb balance as she maintains a finely disciplined line. She is partnered gallantly by Rodolphe Cassand, a powerful dancer of considerable elegance.
For all its competence and suavity, though, Chants d’Auvergne never really generates much excitement. Even in a mood piece like this one, there should be personality radiating from the dancers. Only the last duet by Joral Schmalle and Celia Fushille-Burke created a sense that these dancers were a pair, offering at least the illusion of a couple who relate beyond the physical movement of the moment. They were the only pair who looked each other in the eyes while they danced, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Fushille-Burke performs at a confidence level that others in this dance have not reached, and her achievement succeeded in putting into relief what was missing earlier on.
As it turned out, Chants d’Auvergne was the high point of the evening. The Eternal Idol, which followed, was not a strategic choice in program placement. A pas de deux danced to romantic Chopin music, it had a similar feeling of languor to Chants, rather than the needed change of pace. The dance integrates some poses evoking Rodin’s erotic sculpture, but nothing much seems to be going on under the surface. My First Time, which followed, is danced to a dreadful spoken script, utterly lacking in interest or wit. It makes soap opera dialogue seem positively literary. The choreography did nothing to redeem the work. It is dated, derivative, and dull. Mr. Smuin would do well to drop this embarrassment from the repertoire.
Finally, Frankie and Johnny, based on the old American ballad ("He was her man, but he done her wrong."), should be the right fodder for Mr. Smuin’s theatrical mill. With a lowlife milieu and a story of passion and betrayal, the stage should sizzle.
Smuin has placed the work in a Latin American setting, and used Latin dance beats – mambo, cha cha cha, tango. But the wonderful energy which should thus be generated is undermined by a script which is a mess dramatically. The first two of the three scenes, indeed, are plotless and have nothing discernible to do with Frankie and Johnnie. Some energy is created by the minor dance tension of mambo sur les pointes, but not enough to allow these scenes to be, dramatically, anything more than filler.
In the final scene there are some moments of strong Latin dancing, but they cannot overcome the tired (and, here, not especially imaginatively done) old gimmick Smuin employs of having a man with a dummy (and one foot in a woman’s shoe) dance as if a couple. It seemed a desperate reach by a tired imagination.
The literalness of playing out in a window the gang rape of Frankie had far less dramatic impact than keeping that scene offstage might have; the audience already knows what is happening. It would be more effective simply to have Frankie reenter looking as though she had just been ravished.
With the companies of Mark Morris and, it seems now, Paul Taylor, too, geared for regular appearances in the Bay area, standards have ratcheted up several levels. Based on his opening night this season, Mr. Smuin is offering neither the intellectual depth of Morris, nor the energy and creativity of Taylor. Perhaps Smuin will find his pace later in the season.