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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: SMUIN Contemporary Ballet, “Celebrating Michael,” February 29 – March 3, 2024, Blue Shield of California Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Updated: Mar 4

Smuin Contemporary Ballet (Smuin) is a marvel, not just surviving but seemingly thriving through good times and bad.  Now in its 30th year, Smuin continues to surprise and delight audiences with crowd-pleasing programs of repertory favorites and world premieres. Several generations of dancers have had the pleasure of dancing with the company. Each ensemble seems more skilled than the last as the company’s reputation continues to grow. Artistic Director Celia Fushille, a founding member of the Smuin company, took the helm in 2007 when founder Michael Smuin died suddenly.  Now in her 17th year, Fushille is preparing to hand over the reins in June to Associate Artistic Director Amy Seiwert, a gifted choreographer with deep connections to the company. 

Released from the responsibility of running the company, Fushille plans to spend time setting Michael’s choreography on companies around the country, ensuring his legacy is long-lived.  Passing on the movement and choreographic intention from one generation of artists to another is essential. Dances live in the bodies of their performers.  If a dance is not performed at least once a generation, it risks slipping away forever.   Reconstructing a production is a labor of love. With Celebrating Michael Smuin, Fushille and the company have done extraordinary work in reviving Michael’s story ballet Zorro! (2003), absent from the stage for 17 years, and Fly Me to the Moon (2004), a medley of dances to Frank Sinatra ballads. Showcasing Michaels’s aesthetic, the program demonstrates his storytelling, musicality and ease in melding dance vocabulary from a variety of traditions. 

Michael was a Tony Award-winning Broadway dancemaker and an established ballet choreographer.  His work draws from ballet, tap, ballroom, jazz, musical theater and much more.  Humor, pathos, passion and playful sight-gags all have their place in his work. A showman at heart, Michael loved the glamor and glitz of show business; even his most classical balletic work is accessible and entertaining.  

Celebrating Michael is being performed February 29 through March 3, in Smuin’s original home venue, the Blue Shield Theater at YBCA.   Smuin’s talented and versatile dancers deliver the two works with panache.

Zorro! is a fully produced extravaganza, with lights, sets and costumes, and an original score by composer Charles Fox, worthy of a Hollywood musical.  The ballet revolves around a Los Angeles movie theater in 1959, where the screening of Zorro, set in the Spanish California of the 1920’s, captures the imagination of a young usher, Emilio. He is awkwardly smitten with the Ticket Girl, who he sees being harassed by their boss, the Theater Owner.  Longing to defend his love, as the masked sword-wielding Zorro would, Emilio channels his screen-hero’s vigilante vibe to win the girl of his dreams. Moving quickly over eleven scenes, jumping from real-world to screen fantasy and back, is a bit confusing. The printed and digital programs contain a plot synopsis, which I recommend reading in advance. 

Costume designer Ann Beck uses color and period clothing styles to help us keep track of the characters and the time periods. Usher Emilio and the Ticket Girl wear red, yellow and blue (primary colors).  Their nemesis the lecherous Theater Owner is in sour green and orange (secondary colors). The clothing of the black-and-white-film era scenes feature a grey-scale palette, while Zorro himself, sports a black cape lined in vibrant read satin.

As Zorro, Anthony Cannarella parries with swashbuckling bravado. Ably pirouetting ala seconde, with a leg extended to the side and arms spread one moment, and fencing with his adversary, Captain Monastario, the next.  Kudos to fencing master Richard Lane for staging the complicated and well-executed sword play, which even at the slower speed of olden-time action films is impressive.  Ricardo Dyer displays great resourcefulness as both the Monastario and the Theater Owner. Through numerous costume changes he toggles between dueling with Zorro and partnering his unwilling paramour.  Each assignment is challenging in its own way.

Commanding the stage whenever she is present, Terez Dean Orr shines as the cocky Ticket Girl and the prayerful silent film character, Rosa. Orr maintains her stellar balance en pointe, even while fending off the unwanted advances of Dyer’s characters who manhandle her, lifting her and twirling her against her will as she kicks in rebellion. 

Marc LaPierre is affable, as Emilio, swinging from his tall red A-frame ladder as if on a jungle-gym, before climbing it to correct his initial misspelling of ZORO on the Mission Theater marquee (Douglas Schmidt, Scenic Design).  Michael’s staging and choreography requires athleticism (forward rolls and handstands) and broad musical theater acting chops; LaPierre displays both, moving Emilio from awkward sidekick to confident hero as he practices Zorro’s lunging advances with a flashlight or an umbrella as his weapon.

Smuin artist Marc LaPierre as Emilio, with the object of his affections, the sassy Ticket Girl played by Terez Dean Orr, in Michael Smuin's "Zorro!" Photo: Chris Hardy

Ensemble members fill out the ranks of theater patrons, soldiers, and ballroom dancers.  I particularly enjoyed a bit where popcorn chomping movie-goers react to an offstage movie, by cycling comically through exaggerated laughter, fear, surprise, and sadness (hankies at the ready). 

Zorro! is a clever mash up of action/adventure and boy gets girl. Nostalgic and quintessentially American, it reminded me of Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free.” Though a bit dated, I appreciated that the female lead isn’t coquettish. While a victim of the sexism, she knows her mind and comes out on top.

Fly Me to the Moon transports us to a simpler time of romantic nights on the town of women in gauzy pastel cocktail dresses and debonair gents in vest and ties (Ann Beck, costumes). As the stars of the sky-drop twinkle, five young men stand hands on hips, wryly smiling as, surprise! their dates peek out from behind them to Sinatra’s rendition of the 30’s jazz standard, “You and the Night and the Music.” This opening number features hats for all, canted alluringly over eyes, waved at the end of outstretched arms, and kicked off a toe to land on one’s head.

Framed by full-company numbers, this Sinatra tribute features seven smaller ensemble segments, primarily male-female duets. Embodying well the pent-up desire of the lyrics of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Mengjun Chen leaps confidently, and Gabrielle Collins spins on one leg and then miraculously switches to the other leg without losing momentum.

Maggie Carey brings infectious fun to “The Lady is a Tramp,” rolling craps with the boys before strolling suggestively on her toes. She and partner Jace Pauly are joined by eight others for this joyous lift-filled segment. Carey is the bell of the ball, riding above the fray, carried by a quartet of handsome admirers.

Michael Smuin's "Fly Me to the Moon" part of "Celebrating Michael Smuin," February 29-March 3, 2024. Pictured: Smuin artists (l-r) Lauren Pschirrer, Terez Dean Orr, and Erin Yarbrough-Powell looking at a leaping Mengjun Chen leaps in a 2017 performance. Photo Keith Sutter

Cassidy Isaacson is a graceful, sexy comedienne in “I Won’t Dance,” pulling out all the stops to impress her disinterested beau, a cross-armed yawning Ricardo Dyer. Even her skirt-wrenching, foot-stomping tantrum fails to gain his attention.  One can’t image how such a winning performance doesn’t move him.

The celebratory chorus-lines of the closing act “New York New York,” encapsulate the showbiz pizzazz that Michael brought to San Francisco audiences in his time.  What a treat to revisit and renew our appreciation for all things Michael Smuin as we look toward the bright future of the company which bears his name.

Review by Jen Norris published March 1, 2024

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