Nicole Trerise and John DeSerio in “The Lady Is a Tramp,” in Michael Smuin’s Fly Me to the Moon.
Photo by Tom Hauck, courtesy Carla Befera & Co.

Smuin Ballet
Skirball Center, NYU, New York, NY
August 9–13, 2005
Reviewed by Karyn D. Collins


Michael Smuin is a master of entertaining ideas. Throughout his career he has demonstrated a showman’s flair and a knack for eye-catching works. But Smuin’s choreography wears thin quickly. Five minutes of swooping lifts and bright smiles can be charming. Two hours gives one too much time to note its shortcomings: the predictable choreographic patterns, a lack of connection between dancers and between dancers and music.

Surely the concept of an evening of dance set to Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin contributed to the packed houses greeting the San Francisco-based company. The double bill offered an edited version of Smuin’s Dancin’ With Gershwin and the New York premiere of his Fly Me to the Moon.

Of the two works, Gershwin fares better, though it is not without its problems. Each Gershwin classic, interpreted by artists from Lena Horne to Fred Astaire to Peter Gabriel, creates its own tableaux; some make more sense than others. “Do It Again,” a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, is a witty delight, spoofing the Hollywood glamour acts from movie musicals. The adagio from Concerto in F, a mini-drama about two couples who change partners on the sly, suffers from cardboard characters and fake ardor. “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” a tribute to Fred Astaire, is a clever duet for Vanessa Thiessen and David Strobbe, wielding canes and tap shoes. Unfortunately, they look like, well, ballet dancers trying to tap—stiff, overly careful, and laboring through elementary-level choreography.

The Sinatra tribute, unfortunately, amps up the clever and cute levels. Sinatra was one of the great interpreters of American pop standards. His voice could suggest a playful wink, a seductive come-on, a life of hard times, or the brash bravado of a playboy. Sadly, Smuin’s choreography merely skims the surface of these songs, and the dancers rarely reveal anything more than a broad smile and a game demeanor. In “That’s Life,”Shannon Hurlburt’s cool is overdone to the point of corniness. The part tap/part pointe adagio “The Way You Look Tonight” looks more Lawrence Welk than swinging cool. And the finale to “New York, New York,” with the entire cast high-kicking in snap-brim hats, is a groaner.

Fleeting moments of magic reveal a glimmer of what might have been; for example, Ethan White’s deadpan boredom opposite Robin Cornwell’s earnest (and exhausting) antics in “I Won’t Dance.” And you almost forget the choppiness of “Moonlight Serenade” when Celia Fushille-Burke and James Strong mesmerize you with a lingering look or a caress. But the banal and the humdrum snuff out these few flickers of brilliance. See

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That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

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Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

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Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

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We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

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Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

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