Smuin Ballet

August 9, 2005

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