In 2007 on April 23 the Smuin Ballet was rocked by the sudden death of its director Michael Smuin, who had not only founded the company but also set its choreographic style and developed the dancers for that choreography. This spring 2008, the company presents Dancin’ with Gershwin, a series of short pieces choreographed by Smuin to the music of George and Ira Gershwin.
In some ways the program is more of an homage to Smuin than to the Gershwin brothers, although the slide show that opens the program reveals how much composition Gershwin did in his short lifetime and how pervasive his music is in the culture. The musical selections for the work span several generations, with versions by musicians as diverse as Al Jolson and Cher, Philippe Entremont and Marilyn Monroe.
These works are Smuin at his splashy sexiest, with lots of romantic pas de deux danced by men in tuxes and women in chiffon dresses. For the most part the choreography wasn’t brilliant—though the dancing often was—but entertaining, palatable and pleasing.
OK, I’ll revise that. Smuin had the knack when it came to devising extraordinary lifts, where the man lofts the woman into the air and some shifting of legs, arms, torso and head occurs before she reaches the ground again. It is in partnering that Smuin’s choreography—his understanding of how the mass and planes of the body shift through gravity—takes on a glossy, remarkable shine.
Amy Siewert and James Mills’ interpretation of “Someone to Watch Over Me” was lovely in its partnering choreography. Mills is a really tall, strong guy, so it may be easier for him to sling those petite girls around, and certainly Siewert is a precise and quick-footed dancer who is where she needs to be when she needs to be there. But Mills showed a care and tenderness in placement and Siewert a passion in movement that made the pas de deux gleam with erotic allure.
More allure than “Do It Again,” which featured Robin Cornwell in platinum blonde wig, red velvet dress with fringe skirt and sparkling silver shoes. Men in tuxes followed her around, building various configurations for her out of huge ostrich feather fans. The fan work was clever and nostalgic, matching the singing with breathy ease, but also slightly passé. Like the parasols in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which the dancers formed into an auto with turning wheels.
Shannon Hurlburt danced “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to a background of sly shadows that enacted the lyrics. The choreography depended on the dancer’s considerable acrobatic skills. Like Gene Kelly, Hurlburt has the broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped look of a gymnast, and in “Rhythmic Medley” he seems to echo Kelly’s guy-ish dynamics. He’s a fine dancer.
Jessica Touchet and Kevin Yee-Chan did some splendid tapping in “Fascinating Rhythm.” As did the entire company at program’s end.
After the bows, Artistic Director Celia Fushille announced a major change in the company. Amy Siewert will be leaving her position as a dancer with the company to become its Choreographer in Residence. If her previous choreography is any indication, this will be a vital change in the company’s history. Although Siewert was Smuin’s protégé she has her own very distinct form of choreography, one that is considered, lyric and intelligent. The challenge of her choreography will enrich these dancers, all of who deserve to have their technique presented in fresh ways.
Originally appeared in the Piedmont Post