Smuin’s Pop Pointework

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The New York Sun

Just two weeks after the Los Angeles Times’s dance critic, Lewis Segal, set off a firestorm in the dance world by accusing ballet of (among other sins) being out of touch with “the realities of the moment,” along comes Michael Smuin, whose explicit mission is to make accessible ballets with mass appeal.

Mr. Smuin, a former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, is no ballet elitist; he’s worked for Hollywood, television, and Broadway, where he won a Tony for his choreography for “Anything Goes.” He is known for his splashy suites set to pop songs — Sinatra, Gershwin, Elton John — that play like Broadway Lite: all the dance numbers and none of the book. And this week at the Joyce, Mr. Smuin’s San Francisco-based company is serving up ballet as pop entertainment.

Smuin Ballet opened Monday night’s program with the New York premiere of Mr. Smuin’s latest pop suite, “Bluegrass/Slyde” (2005), set to the picking and strumming of banjo player Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer.

The piece begins with a PBS style video that follows the likable musicians around a bluegrass festival for a few minutes. The massive screen is then yanked away to reveal James Beaumont’s curiously spare, industrial set: three tall aluminum poles hooked into overhead grids.

As hoedown music pours through the speakers, three athletic men leap like gymnasts onto the poles, which spin in quick circles. As the dance progresses, more men and women twine themselves around the poles, sometimes climbing them, sometimes climbing aboard the rotating platform at the base of each one.Yes, it is pole-dancing, but of an oddly squeaky-clean and folksy sort. Despite the tightly fitted black tights and tank tops, and the fire-engine red poles, this is cheery Broadway entertainment, a distant cousin of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

At times, the piece transcends its gimmicks. The bodies spinning in circles provide a satisfying visual echo to the rhythmic circling of the bluegrass instruments, and one section ends with a highly effective use of the platform: Six dancers create a folk dance circle, spinning joyously and throwing their arms into the air. Too often, however, the poles are used for overly hyped stunts.

And the gimmicks don’t stop there. “Bluegrass/Slyde” incorporates many forms of dance — ballet, folk dance, jazz, modern, tap, and even gymnastics and circus moves. Mr. Smuin, it seems, wanted to emphasize particular musical cadences with a feathery ballet step here, a slinky jazz step there. Fine. But the endless switching between styles feels less like a blend than like a series of abortive experiments. And all those moves thrown in for their “Look Ma, no hands” appeal grow tiresome.

But though “Bluegrass/Slyde” struggles mightily with tone, it is largely entertaining, and, as promised, accessible. Imagine the crowd’s dismay, then, when “Symphony of Psalms” (2006), the next New York premiere, turned out to be a brooding, leaden piece set to a Stravinsky chorale. It was as though Mr. Smuin started off serving cotton candy, then moved on to brussels sprouts.

With its tumultuous, almost bombastic score and grim overtones,”Symphony of Psalms” is far from the pop entertainment that is Mr. Smuin’s bread and butter. Dressed in too tight blue shorts and diaphanous white turtlenecks, the men looked out of place next to the swan-like women in their shimmering white dresses. Time after time, Mr. Smuin sought to invigorate the staid ballet figures with upside-down lifts, in which the man’s nose ended up pressed against the woman’s thighs, but these efforts only heightened the awkwardness.

Relief came in the form of the warmer zone of “Fly Me to the Moon,” a suite of dances choreographed to Frank Sinatra hits in 2004. This piece, the strongest on the bill, resembles Broadway dancing, with the addition of pointe shoes and ballet leaps for a little extra lilt. Each happy couple wore matching sherbet-toned costumes and dapper hats, which were tossed and toyed with throughout the dance, to the crowd’s great delight. Like Broadway hoofers, the dancers telegraphed their cuteness to the back row — they know their genre. A witty, highly stylized solo to “That’s Life,” danced with zing and verve by Shannon Hurlburt, was the highlight.

The audience’s warm, enthusiastic response to “Fly Me to the Moon” provided food for thought. Mr. Smuin’s unintimidating pop ballets make even a novice spectator feel included, which is probably a good thing for dance — and perhaps too rare an occurrence.

Yet even judged by their own criteria, Mr. Smuin’s ballets don’t fully deliver. There are many thin stretches where the dances fail to entertain. Audiences are receptive, and they will cut a company like Smuin Ballet a lot of slack. But a large gulf separates Mr. Smuin’s three dances from the wall-towall power of popular ballet’s like Susan Stroman’s “Contact” and Twyla Tharp’s “Movin Out.” At a time when the dance world is re-examining the relationship between ballet and the larger popular culture, Smuin Ballet offers a case study in both the possibilities and perils of blending ballet with Broadway.

Until August 19 (175 Eighth Ave. at 19th Street, 212-242-0800).

The New York Sun

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