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Don't Look Back: Smuin Ballets/S.F. dancer Osmani Garcia spins a smile in 'Heartbreak Hotel.'

Photo by Susan Vogel



Smuin Ballets/S.F. bring their guerrilla troupe to Spreckels

By Gretchen Giles

IF YOU THINK that you've never seen choreographer Michael Smuin's work, think again. Because audiences don't have to put on fancy clothes and file into darkened concert halls to watch this innovative artist's ideas enacted in the strong, limbered bodies of the 12 dancers in his Smuin Ballets/SF company.

They can just go to the movies.

Couched in the rigors of classical ballet, Smuin's dizzying vita ranges from directing the San Francisco Ballet for 12 years, to dancing in and directing the American Ballet Theater, to shepherding ABT's televised 50th anniversary special, to starting his own company three years ago.

He's also done just about everything in between, from directing and choreographing Linda Ronstadt's stunning Mexican folksong and dance production Canciones de mi Padre, to putting his dancers through their paces at the White House, to winning Broadway's Tony award for choreographing Anything Goes, and finally--to duking it out with Jabba the Hut.

Yep, Jabba. When techno-wizard George Lucas decided to revamp his Star Wars trilogy for a '97 release utilizing millennium's-end computer smarts, he called on Smuin to stage a stylized battle between his dancers and that man in the carpeted costume. But that wasn't half as much fun as teaching actor Jack Nicholson to move like a lobo in the werewolf thriller Wolf, a job he got after filmmaker Mike Nichols saw Smuin's Peter and the Wolf for American Ballet Theater.

"Of course," chuckles Smuin of the Prokofiev effort, speaking by phone from his San Francisco home, "that wolf was like a cartoon."

To prepare for the Nichols film, Smuin learned about alpha and beta wolves and the specifics of pack behavior in order to properly finesse Nicholson to his knees.

With his choreography for the first cinematic production of Broadway's long-running The Fantasticks due to hit movie theaters early next year, with preparations roaring for his Dec. 6 directorial presentation of Ira Gershwin at 100: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, and with his company coming to the Spreckels Performing Arts Center Nov. 16-17, one would think that Smuin might slow down.

"Not at all," he says simply. After all, he is simply doing what he loves best.

Known for his sexy, modern style, Smuin himself has called his lean and muscular innovations "guerrilla ballet," distinctive for their use of recorded music and borrowing from modern dance and jazz styles.

Audiences won't see Swan Lake, but they are guaranteed such pieces of reanimation fantasy as Eternal Idol, in which the statues of sculptor Auguste Rodin's famous "The Kiss" come to life, and the Asian-influenced work of Shinju.

The most classically anchored of his offerings, the Brahms/Haydn Variations, is known for the muscularity with which he explores the formalistic spirit of Brahms' work, but any highbrow stiflings are quickly elided by the acclaimed Dances with Songs repertoire, which incorporates such pop hits as "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Georgia on My Mind" with the supple renderings of Smuin's high-heeled and -hatted dancers.

And it is his innovative, common-man approach to the revered art of ballet that has attracted so many to the Smuin style.

"I am interested in the music," he says. "And I'll go with anything from the hokey-pokey to the hula if it matches the music."


Smuin Ballets/SF perform Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17, at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30. Tickets are $22-$25. 584-1700.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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