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Smuin-fuls of Fun at the Joyce

08/21/2012 03:34 pm 15:34:01 | Updated Oct 21, 2012

The San Francisco-based Smuin Ballet delivered a passionate performance at the Joyce Theater this past August 16th. The evening started out with the jaunty and fast-paced "Oh, Inverted World" (New York Premiere, August 13, 2012), set to '60s-sounding music by the Shins and choreographed by Trey McIntyre. The piece is light-hearted and airy, refreshing in its innovative arm movements and directional changes -- it seemed to be all about youth and its coming together and apart. There was something truly moving and visceral about this piece but in the end it began to lag: it would do better at 10-15 minutes. There are also some inexplicable elements, as when one of the dancers, a rather comely young lad, pushes his arm through his shorts and one presumes his dance belt and just stands there facing the audience. This is a picayune perhaps, but it detracts from the piece's integrity.

The introductory piece was followed by a literal, plodding "Medea" (1977), choreographed by Michael Smuin and set to the same Samuel Barber score ("Medea Suite") to which Martha Graham set her 1946 classic "Cave of the Heart." The curtain opens on an intense, almost supernatural Medea (Robin Semmelhack) clothed in a purple cape, smoke billowing out in all directions. You know you are in for quite a ride -- and not the amusement park type, either. Unfortunately the rest of the piece looked as if it had come straight from Moscow, circa 1970, with a powerful male lead à la Spartacus and lots of buns sticking out everywhere -- just too much flesh. Interestingly enough, Smuin changed the method that Medea chooses to kill her rival -- in the original myth she makes Creusa (Janica Smith) don a poison gown while here she simply strangles her to death; this make her a less cunning murderess. Joshua Reynolds does a credible job as Jason -- all muscle and bluster as he teaches his sons (the superb John Speed Orr and Christian Squires) to throw the javelin and discus, and later as he mourns their deaths at their mother's hands. Martha Graham is a tough act to follow -- it is puzzling that Smuin chose such a classical presentation for his version of "Medea."

The third piece of the night "Soon These Two Worlds" (which also received its New York premiere on the 13th of this month) is a perfectly lovely powder puff of a piece by Smuin choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert set to Kronos Quartet's pulsating, rhythmic "Pieces of Africa." The dancers wear multicolored body suits and costumes. Everything is upbeat and colorful, the movement apparently based on African dance. The audience seemed to enjoy it tremendously, though critically, one would have hoped for more: more complexity, more changes of pace, more innovation. The costuming was perplexing (was that African as well?) and the movements too restrained, not powerful enough.

The dancers from the Smuin ballet are all talented and energetic and they telegraph their enthusiasm to an equally excited audience. They are a wonderful regional company -- just not quite up to snuff when compared to some of their colleagues that we are used to seeing locally.