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The spectacle looks more like an animated cartoon than a rehearsal. One dancer stalks about the studio on 2-foot-high hydraulic stilts. Another twirls a fluorescent pink bullfighting cape. A third careens across the room pushing a stuffed bull's head mounted on a bicycle wheel. Then the music starts, a recording of Aaron Copland's Danzo Cubano overlaid with Looney Tunes-style sound effects, and the actual dancing -- and even in this unlikely toy shop setting, there is plenty of it -- begins.
Michael Smuin never stops getting a kick out of his zanier creations, and so, dressed as usual in snug-fitting jeans, T-shirt, and cowboy boots, he is in an exceptional mood. "We call this our United Nations program," he quips. "We're doing Les Noces -- that's Russian -- then Shinju, Japanese, Homeless -- that's the new solo, that's African -- and Suenos Latinos" -- the work the dancers are rehearsing. The program is the last of three to run during Smuin Ballets/SF's spring season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which begins tonight.
"Can we perform this naked one night?" a dancer asks with good-natured frustration after tripping over his trailing serape.
"Sure," Smuin answers. "It'll be naked for the radio audience."
Indeed, when a Smuin Ballets rehearsal is interrupted these days it tends to be the fault of some unwieldy prop or costume, and you're more likely to see a dancer irked at a cape that refuses to unwind than at a tough pirouette combination. This is not because Smuin is only interested in choreographing theatrical, prop-laden dances. It's true he's heavily influenced by the 15 years he's spent choreographing for television, film, and Broadway. But Smuin's shown a surprising versatility since founding his own small troupe six years ago, creating both celluloid-inspired pieces such as Suenos Latinos and pure dance ballets such as 1999's Chants d'Auvergne, appearing on this year's Program A.
No, a major reason Smuin has the luxury to fuss around with props is not because dancing takes second priority, but because his dancers, technically and expressively, are getting stronger. And it's the dancers' increasing aptitude that is allowing for the real excitement this year. Sure, the promotional posters tout Smuin's fun new Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, premiering alongside last year's hit children's ballet Pinocchio. And then there's also the aforementioned Homeless solo, choreographed for the smoldering Argentine guest artist Hernan Piquin. But the real news of this spring season -- for balletomanes and anyone who's followed the evolution of the San Francisco Ballet -- is not the newest works, but the oldest: Shinju (1975) and Medea (1977). Shinju hasn't appeared onstage in its entirety since Smuin's bitter departure from SFB in 1985; Medeahasn't been performed in San Francisco since 1979.
"I've been waiting to do Shinju. It's always been so well received," Smuin says over a glass of red wine following rehearsal. "And for this season I had two people who I thought would be just sensational in the main roles, Joral [Schmalle] and Dalyn [Chew]. More than anything, I really felt I had a cast that was up to it. I thought we could not only revive it and Medea but make them even stronger than before."
Shinju and Medea are cornerstone Smuin works, and it's easy to understand why he's waited to mount them. Anyone who saw Shinju at SFB remembers it, setting a standard for other performances, while in the case of Medea that standard has been set by the venerable Dance Theater of Harlem, which has both Medea and Smuin's Songs of Mahler in its repertory. But Smuin Ballets, like any small start-up troupe, experienced its share of dancer turnover in its early years, with few dancers besides the always dazzling Celia Fushille-Burke staying long enough to mold to Smuin's works. The New York Times, in its reviews of Smuin Ballets' Joyce Theater appearances, twice noted that the dancers needed to "move with more bite" to carry the abstracted works.
Now, though, Smuin's roster of performers is holding steady at 14, with young talent such as Easton Smith and Allison Jay taking on bigger roles, and accomplished former San Francisco Ballet dancers, such as Claudia Alfieri and Rodolphe Cassand, joining the ranks in recent years. But asked whether the company is ready to tackle the revivals, Smuin is cautious. "Just because somebody's a good dancer doesn't mean they're right for something that was choreographed for someone else," he says. And Smuin is the first to admit that, only six years out, he's "still building."
"You know, you spend so much energy bringing these older pieces back and you have to hope it's worth it," Smuin says. "Medea and Shinju seem to be very powerful in the studio. What happens onstage remains to be seen."
More than a few San Francisco ballet lovers have been waiting decades to see it.
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