Smuin troupe’s 25-year tribute showcases ballet outside the box

Smuin dancers (from left) Valerie Harmon, Nichole Haskins, Tessa Barbour and Ben Needham-Wood are featured in Amy Seiwert’s “Renaissance,” a world premiere. Photo by Chris Hardy.

“Renaissance,” bare-footed choreography developed for Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s 25th anniversary, exalts the troupe’s innovative founder, Michael Smuin, and his not being “stuck in a ballet box.”

Via its seven parts showcasing Bulgarian, Romanian, Georgian and Macedonian folk-dance melodies recorded by the instrument-less, Oakland-based Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble.

Highlighted by dancers’ whiplashing heads and rigidly outstretched legs.

Unique, certainly.

And since I relish different, I found the “Dance Series 02” world premiere downright intriguing.

Especially its “Cradle Song” segment, with Erin Yarbrough-Powell undulating to a Russian Jewish tune like the hands of a huge clock, or the pendulum of an ancient timepiece, while wearing a two-piece black costume that contrasted sharply with the intentionally almost colorless tunic-like outfits sported by the rest of the company

Amy Seiwert, who’d been a dancer with the troupe for nine years and choreographer-in-residence for 10, created the piece after inspiration from a 385-mile hand-holding wall of women in India on Jan. 1 of this year aimed in part at building gender-equality awareness.

The serious, somewhat opaque magnum opus neatly complemented much of the show’s second half, a retrospective of Smuin’s quarter century that underscored sensuality, humor, drama and story-telling — and, of course, amazing skill, dexterity and diversity (ranging from deliciously graceful classical moves to a chorus line of tap-dancing).

That trip into nostalgia included a video documentary interspersed between dances and featured a voice over by actor Peter Coyote.

Erica Felsch sizzles during “Fever” number in Smuin company’s “Dance Series 02.” Photo by Chris Hardy

Its main appeal, however, was that it clearly showed Smuin’s eclectic choices — from sexy slithering by Tessa Barbour (or Erica Felsh, in other performances) on a red chair that’s repainted every time jazz/pop singer Peggy Lee’s “Fever” is performed, a prop specially modified so it won’t accidentally fold; to male dancers gyrating in the original zoot suits of a 1996 production of “Que Rico Mambo” (from “Frankie and Johnny”) and females in black-painted pointe shoes; to the final three songs by George Gershwin, including an incredibly elegant sequence with tuxedo-clad men, women in flowing dresses and a backdrop that consisted of 16-foot all rotating prisms with mirrors on two sides that turned six couples into dozens.

Plus music borrowed from pop figures like Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson, and classical geniuses such as Bach, Stravinsky, Copland and Verdi.

To my favorite element, the “Balcony Scene” of Mozart’s “Cyrano,” in which two identically clad 19th century suitors with long-beak masks vie for the heart of a vacillating damsel.

The performance I saw drew robust applause not only for “Renaissance” but every part of the yesteryear compilation, which, I felt, ended up being an exquisitely apropos homage to Michael Smuin and his company’s eclectic silver anniversary.

The Smuin Contemporary Ballet, whose ticket sales have been averaging 30,000 a year, plans to move its headquarters within months to a renovated Potrero Hill warehouse on 17th St. at De Haro.

There, the troupe expects to have separate rooms for rehearsals, physical therapy, wardrobe and meetings for administrators — in addition to locker rooms and showers for 16 dancers.

It’s what Coyote labeled in the video as “a place to explore where ballet can take us.”

I can’t wait to see the results of that “where.” 

Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s “Dance Series 02” will be performed through May 5 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard St. (at Third), San Francisco, then move to the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek May 17 and 18, the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts May 23-26 and the Sunset Center in Carmel May 31and June 1. Information: or 415-912-1899.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle, at

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Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at or, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →