Times Dance Writer

Whatever else you may say about him, never accuse Michael Smuin of playing it safe.

In his first new work since losing the artistic directorship of San Francisco Ballet and becoming the company’s “principal guest choreographer,” he has again tackled a monumental project.

An ordinary choreographer might well find it daunting enough to make a ballet from the songs and sensibilities associated with the late Edith Piaf. Certainly, an ordinary choreographer might run from the prospect of attempting a ballet reduction of the exquisite post-war French film “Les Enfants du Paradis” (Children of Paradise)--a film novelistic in its extraordinary length, complexity and depth.

But Smuin is not only far from ordinary, he is fearless, and in “Hearts” he takes on both challenges simultaneously. With cabaret singer Raquel Bitton in the pit performing intense re-orchestrated amplified Piaf repertory, the events of “Les Enfants du Paradis” are summarized in a feverish 45-minute dance spectacle. Focusing on only two of the film’s many characters, and on its theme of theater as a metaphor for life, Smuin fills the stage of the War Memorial Opera House with commedia archetypes, florid emoting and bravura ballet technique.


Aided by Tony Walton’s atmospheric scenery and Willa Kim’s emblematic costumes, he offers the same cinematic narrative style and the same penchant for big confrontational frissons in place of coherent character development as in his “A Song for Dead Warriors.” Played in Marcel Carne’s film by Jean-Louis Barrault, Baptiste is here a caricature of boyish ardor, always flinging himself at the feet or into the lap of his beloved Garrance--but never removing his white Pierrot makeup.

In his first major opportunity with this company, Daniel Meja puts enough heat into Baptiste’s climactic solo to make the familiar virtuoso step combinations seethe with Petrushkan anger and agony. But Evelyn Cisneros can do little to animate the sketchy concept of Garrance and her disjointed fallen-woman solo is merely a compendium of cliches.

Joanna Berman has one feisty eruption of jealousy as Baptiste’s wife and Russell Murphy brings personal magnetism to the role of the Count (Baptiste’s rival), but these and other characters are merely foils for Baptiste and Garrance--lovers who miss their chance together and then, in the ballet’s most artful moment, watch and dance poignantly on the sidelines as another Pierrot woos another cocotte in a ballet within the ballet.

This is a passage of deep simplicity and sincere feeling but it comes far too late. Up to this point, “Hearts” has never achieved the authenticity of an original creation. Every good idea, every telling stroke has belonged to Carne, Piaf or their collaborators. Only the jumble of undeveloped ideas, trivialized themes and conflicting styles belongs to Smuin alone.


The Tuesday program by San Francisco Ballet also included artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s newest work, “Confidencias,” in which Cisneros listens to pianist Roy Bogas play a nostalgic little waltz composition by Ernesto Nazareth and then launches into large-scale technical/emotional statements.

As in “Hearts,” she is wearing a red gown and again the sense of buried feelings flaring up is the motivation for her solo. But Tomasson unifies the moody discontinuities--the big jumps, bursts of twisty footwork, the simple walking turns and delicate runs on pointe-- and gives Cisneros an original showpiece of major interest to glory in.

The revival of the late Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station” not only returns to the repertory the first all-American ballet (c. 1938), it restores a score by Virgil Thomson that remains a model of wit and invention. As Mac, the gas station attendant in cellophane overalls, David McNaughton danced with an easy charm and perfect control of the role’s brilliant turns. Anita Paciotti played the role of the drunk rich girl with a spectacular command of boneless, off-balance character dancing.

The company’s abridged production of Eliot Feld’s peculiar “Papillon” (music by Offenbach) boasted fine performances, especially from Berman, Jamie Zimmerman and Cynthia Drayer in the mock-Romantic, mock- caractere and mock-classical variations of the divertissement.


Kim’s fanciful costumes (including giant caterpillars and a nasty red and black spider) lead you to expect a kiddy ballet. But Feld’s interest seems to be in wringing subtle changes from the expressive port de bras of all those winged women who danced through the ballets of the 19th Century. Besides the question of confused signals about intention, the ballet lacks a major ballerina role--and the endless sorties by a youth with a butterfly net are no compensation. Thus “Papillon” seems empty at the center and fuzzy overall--a ballet full of sly Feldian touches but never satisfying as a whole.