Smuin Applies Artful Moves to Familiar Works


Smuin Ballets/SF brought familiar themes and glossy, balletic form to the Luckman Theatre at Cal State L.A. over the weekend. Excerpts from Michael Smuin’s “Dances With Songs,” set to popular tunes, were accompanied by “The Blue Angel” on Saturday night and “Carmina Burana” on Sunday afternoon, both premieres by Smuin.

“The Blue Angel” follows, in general, Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film, starting with a slide show of vintage images and featuring raspy-voiced German cabaret songs on tape. But this is ballet, so the sluggish tawdriness of Weimar-era night life gives way to neat but lethally pointed toe shoes on long legs. In this telling of a prim schoolmaster’s fatal attraction to the heartless showgirl Lola Lola, Smuin has turned the Marlene Dietrich role into a cross between Cyd Charisse and the Black Swan.

Oddly, it works, especially when the masterful Celia Fushille-Burke as Lola becomes an Art Deco posing machine inside and around two giant revolving silver hoops. Joined by a barely clad Osmani Garcia, the athletically aesthetic arching exercise suggests a live sex show.


The schoolmaster (Lee Bell) has his heart crushed eventually, but Smuin’s final scene neglects to notice the way Sternberg made “less is more” work for him. Smuin is better at “more is more,” which works really well in an earlier cabaret scene, when three lines of dancers, eerily glowing in black light, turn out to be three dancers with dummies attached to their arms.

“Carmina Burana,” set to Carl Orff’s familiar, stirring music, is a series of dances that plays with mood and display. Dancers become purveyors of their own beauty and line, always impressive, sometimes unable to create an impact because Smuin’s sense of flow and dynamics seems stalled in “luxurious mode.” Flashy extensions and lifts sometimes seem thrown in as they are in ice-dancing, ready to be judged.

Among the excellent performers, many had strong moments, among them Dalyn Chew with her filigreed port de bras, the buoyant Shannon Hurlburt and the dynamic Rachel Greenwood-Chew. Dancers blessed with a luxurious line and intrepid spirit often have the last word with audiences.