Smuin dazzles in San Francisco with Dance Series 1

Smuin dancers. “The Man in Black” Photo credit: Chris Hardy

Smuin Contemporary Ballet has returned to the San Francisco stage, launching its 26th season with Dance Series 01. Artistic director Celia Fushille continues to honor the principles of late founder Michael Smuin with classical-based contemporary that pulses with energy, drama and a generous dollop of the eclectic. Case in point: cowboy boots and not pointe shoes for the company premiere of The Man in Black. Choreographed by James Kudelka, former artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, it celebrates the legacy of Johnny Cash, set to six of his iconic songs and covers. Paired with two other ballets, Sunday afternoon’s performance at Cowell Theater dazzled.

“Take Five” Photo credit: Chris Hardy

The program began with with Rex Wheeler’s Take Five. Originally created for Smuin’s 2018 Choreography Showcase, Wheeler, a former company dancer, expanded the piece from one to eight sections, set to selections from jazz legend Dave Brubeck’s lively and innovative albums. This was a very likable ballet in all ways—the movements charmed, the music appealed, and the dancers looked like they were having a great time, which, of course, made the audience have a great time watching. Both Kaori Higashiyama’s crayon-bright costumes and Michael Oesch’s gel-tinted lighting nicely complemented the staging. Cassidy Isaacson and Peter Kurta paired well in the eponymous “Take Five” section, with smooth dancing and sharp, clean partnered pirouettes. In “I’m in a Dancing Mood,” Maggie Carey and Tessa Barbour, clad in mango-colored costumes (each section features different colored costumes), cleverly  “played” trio partner Ian Buchanan like a piano. Buchanan, in turn threw in a flexed-foot turns and a cute Italian changement that added whimsy to the classically-based movements. “Camptown Races” gave us a trio of blue-clad male dancers, nailing the unison passages. Mengjun Chen is so airy in his leaps, you’d swear he’d found a way to suspend time. Joining him were Peter Kurta and Zachary Artice—another dancer whose refined, classical movements seem to fill the stage. In “Perfidia,” Terez Dean Orr was a standout in cherry red, with her always excellent technique and distinct onstage personality. “Memories of You” had Lauren Pschirrer and Ben Needham-Wood sharing a tender pas de deux, with gorgeous leaps in tandem and whisper-soft landings.

Smuin Dancers L-R Tessa Barbour, Zachary Artice, João Sampaio, Mengjun Chen – Photo Credit: Chris Hardy

Back to James Kudelka’s The Man in Black, an unsentimental, minimalist take on the world that country-western legend Johnny Cash inhabited and sang about. Tessa Barbour was adorable and fierce as the lone female dancing with three men, all clad in dark, somber western, working-class attire. Cowboy boots, worn by all, creating a distinct aesthetic. The four dancers stayed onstage throughout, as they alternately supported, deterred, sustained one another. There was lots of walking (and stomping), ostensibly an allusion to the human condition, that at times seemed to lose its dramatic impact. Cash’s low, gravelly voice lent heart to Kudelka’s choreography, which reached a high point in the cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” where João Sampaio’s impassioned movements, resistant yet clinging, brought a heartfelt poignancy to the quartet and its link of interconnectedness.

Tessa Barbour and Smuin dancers – Carmina Burana. Photo credit: Chris Hardy

Michael Smuin’s iconic 1977 Carmina Burana concluded the program. Lush and dramatic, based on the medieval poems that inspired the classic Carl Orff score, Smuin’s intensely physical choreography showcased the dancers’ athleticism and expression, with gorgeous, memorable results. Following the stunning opening, set to Orff’s “O Fortuna,” Tessa Barbour (who was having an exceptionally good night) and Max van Der Sterre led a series of pas de deux, solos and trios, nineteen vignettes culminating in a spine-tingling reprise of the opening.

It never fails to amaze me just how good these dancers are, so strong and refined, with an impressive sense of ensemble for which they, and artistic director Celia Fushille, are to be credited and congratulated. (A shout-out to dancers Tess Lane, Ricardo Dyer and Brennan Wall, whom I noted but hadn’t yet mentioned.)

Tessa Barbour and Smuin Dancers – Carmina Burana. Photo credit: Chris Hardy

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
Celia Fushille – Artistic Director

Dance Series 01

Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center
2 Marina Blvd.
San Francisco

Fri Sep 27 — Sun Oct 06
Tickets: $25 – $97
For more details, call the Smuin box office at 415-912-1899 or online at

Can’t make it to San Francisco this weekend? Live too far south to catch a Smuin program in the city? Good news: this program will repeat in February/March 2019 in Mountain View and Carmel. Click HERE for venues, dates and details.


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