Theater archives

Western Swing and Swirl


Out of the West came Michael Smuin’s San Francisco ballet troupe, which lost two shows to the blackout, and Cleo Parker Robinson’s eclectic Denver-based group, which pulled smallish houses as blockbuster news hogged the media.

Smuin is, at heart, a nightclub choreographer, happiest when he’s powering chorus lines and high-kicking Apache-style duets. At the Joyce, he displayed his 9-11-inspired Stabat Mater, to choral music by Dvorák, and a long suite of dances to Gershwin tunes. Stabat Mater is utterly sentimental, and overbalanced by its rock-concert lighting. The work’s structure tends toward repetition: Pairs of dancers execute the same sequences, either simultaneously or one after another, without accumulating energy or emotional resonance. The plot, which involves Mary’s vigil at the site of the crucifixion, uses a device that may work in the movies—a duet with a dead or missing partner—but defies belief in the flesh-and-blood precincts of a dance stage, especially when the Christ figure is Rodolphe Cassand, the heftiest guy onstage. Costumes simpler than the jewel-toned ballet gowns might help the mood of the work; also useful would be dancers with sharper technical chops. The combo of flaccid execution and shallow construction pretty much sinks the 19-minute piece, performed against projected rocks and twinkling stars.

Vastly more engaging is Smuin’s 68-minute Dancin’ With Gershwin. If they’d had MTV in the ’30s, this is what it would have looked like. Two slide shows—the first featuring many photos of the genius composer snatched from us at the tender age of 38, and the second, images of sheet music from dozens of his incomparable songs—accompany overtures before its two acts. The women perform on point, the men frequently in tuxedos. The male contingent too often fumbles its preparations, and the women seem distracted in their finishing moves.

Oh, but the music! Gershwin songs recorded in practically every decade since the ’30s, by sublime artists like Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, and Sting, come across here as the contemporary equivalent of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The most entertaining of the work’s 17 sections is “Do It Again,” in which a Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Nicole Trerise in red fringe) lip-synchs to the blonde bombshell’s own recording of this underappreciated number, while a chorus of six men in formal attire surround, conceal, and expose her, manipulating huge white-plume fans. A couple of very young male dancers, Shannon Hurlburt and Roberto Cisneros, contribute solo turns.

There are worse ways to while away a muggy summer evening. I found myself wishing that American Ballet Theater could get its hands on this material, and give it the rock ’em-sock ’em performance it requires.

More successful, overall, was the very diverse program imported by Cleo Parker Robinson, celebrating more than 30 years at the helm of a group that includes dancers of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. They triumphed in Choros, choreographed in the 1940s by Katherine Dunham, a trained anthropologist who mentored Robinson. Based on formal Brazilian quadrilles, its performance by a quartet (Susan Richardson-Baylon, Lawrence Jackson, Annie Gavino, and Asante I in layered costumes of bright patchwork, stripes, and white ruffles) perfectly fused the elegance of European dance styles with the rhythmic energy of the South American continent.

David Rousseve’s historical panorama, One Nation Under a Groove Part 2/ 24 Hours in Birmingham, gives this engaging troupe a work that suits. Many of the dancers are youngish girls who handle the high school hijinks adroitly. The piece juxtaposes the innocent fun of 15-year-olds with the events of September 14, 1963, when four of them died in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Humor, pathos, the voice of an aging Southern black woman synthesized by Rousseve himself—these are all elements familiar to aficionados of Rousseve’s art. Robinson’s dancers sparkle at the jitterbug and the line dances of the period.

There’s no dead wood in this ensemble, just 15 utterly committed performers.