Smuin’s Pointless Nostalgia; Hubbard Street’s Sheer Joy

It’s not often you go to the ballet and see something with absolutely no redeeming value, but the recent Michael

It’s not often you go to the ballet and see something with absolutely no redeeming value, but the recent Michael Smuin season at the Skirball Center was exactly that—two hours of glitzy junk, poorly danced.

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First came Dancin’ with Gershwin, an endless potpourri of routines to recordings of Gershwin music, from the obvious hits—“’S Wonderful,” “The Man I Love,” “Summertime,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”—to the adagio movement from the Concerto in F. Yes, under such circumstance you can close your eyes and just listen to the music (as Balanchine used to advise us to do when bored), but a kind of fatal curiosity takes over. Think Lot’s wife; think Pandora and her box; think all those heroines of Gothic novels who can’t resist clambering up into the attic after they’ve been told, “Whatever you do, stay away from that attic!” I guess I’m a Gothic heroine—I’d certainly had fair warning, having seen Smuin’s elaborately pointless and recklessly expensive St. Louis Woman, done for the Dance Theatre of Harlem a couple of years ago.

It’s hard to identify the low point of Dancin’ with Gershwin. There’s the dreary tapping to “Fascinating Rhythm” while Fred Astaire (!) sang the song. The unspeakable cheapness of “Do it Again” to Marilyn Monroe’s recording, with Nicole Trerise trashing Marilyn (and de-sexing her) while boys in tuxes framed her with giant fans concocted from white feathers. (As a Vegas act, this might have been acceptable—if you’d had enough to drink.) The ghastly faux-emotion of “Summertime.” (Shades of Cry.) The soporific blandness of Celia Fushille-Burke and Easton Smith against Carmen McRae’s astonishingly inventive version of “The Man I Love.” (Try to forget Patricia McBride in Who Cares?) The endless two-couple “drama” to the Concerto, sampling (and debasing) Tudor’s Lilac Garden.

There are critics who have praised this objectionable mess—it’s been around for over a dozen years and was in New York only two summers ago—but I won’t embarrass them by naming them.

The second part of the program, Fly Me to the Moon, followed the same pattern: a series of dance snippets to superior recordings. But instead of one composer supposedly holding it together, there was a single performer: Frank Sinatra. Unsurprisingly, Smuin, whose natural mode is brashness, gave us the ring-a-ding Sinatra—all push and brass—rather than the feeling Sinatra.

Why anatomize this reprehensible piece? It has the same faults as the Gershwin—nothing original, everything coarse. I think, though, that I can identify the low point of this one: clumsy, off-the-music tapping to “The Way You Look Tonight.” But no—what about the final number, to “New York, New York,” when “The Company” surged forward with Rockette-ish kicks while color photos of (you guessed it) New York were flashed against the back wall? I had just muttered to a colleague, “Are we to be spared nothing?” and I was answered.

Smuin says that he’s never seen Twyla Tharp’s brilliant Nine Sinatra Songs, and I’m prepared to believe it. What Tharp got from Sinatra was his phrasing; what Smuin got was his assertiveness. Tharp has her instantly identifiable vocabulary; Smuin has nothing of his own, just standard steps strung together without imagination. I do love it, though, when he throws in a recognizable ballet step—an irrelevant pas de chat here, a pointless fouetté there, a sad little clump of piqué turns—to show that he’s really giving us a ballet, not just a succession of showbiz routines. (After all, he calls his company Smuin Ballet.) I also love his literal response to the lyrics. “I’ll miss your fond caress”? She caresses her arm. “You’ll spread yo’ wings”? She spreads her white skirt into … wings.

Just as depressing as these two works is the company itself—joylessness incarnate. The boys are stiff. The girls are dull. No one can really tap. The dancers’ energy doesn’t spring from the music; it’s tacked on, to make its showbizzy points. Everything is indicated, sold—it’s not just the music that’s canned, it’s the dancing, too. Why do audiences eat it up? Pure nostalgia? Some questions are better left unanswered.

If you fall off a horse, get right back on—isn’t that what they say? The night after Smuin, I picked myself up, dusted myself off and started all over again—at the Joyce, for the second Hubbard Street program. (I’d managed to miss the first one, with its New York premieres of pieces by Lar Lubovitch and Nacho Duato. Now I’ll never know why Duato’s ballet is called Gnawa.)

Oh, the relief of watching an entire company of terrific dancers! These 22 young men and women are everything the Smuin dancers aren’t: committed, daring, going all the way for the sheer joy of moving. They don’t indicate, they don’t sell, they just show you their dancing and make you feel alive, even when you’re not in love with what they’re actually dancing.

There was a long piece—Uniformity—by Jim Vincent, Hubbard Street’s artistic director. The first two sections are all aggression, competition: first, two guys in business suits and ties, then, men vs. women. The vocabulary is angry and violent—and gripping, until the law of diminishing returns sets in. Unfortunately, that law sets in particularly early in the endless third section, with its derivative disco mode. I haven’t the faintest idea why this last section was pasted onto the first two, or what it was supposed to be about—it took place mostly in the dark, and I suppose its listlessness was deliberate.

Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa, made almost 20 years ago for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, is more consistent, although the very extended second part—in which the dancers, one at a time and very, very slowly, emerge from one side of the stage and sidle, tilting back and forth, to the other side—tries one’s patience after a while. In the middle of this solemn parade, there’s a trio for two men and a woman who are not very happy. Naharin has something meaningful to tell us, and the dancers take it very seriously, but at times I felt I was swallowing medicine. This is the kind of piece Jerome Robbins would have made with less depth of feeling but more smarts.

Finally came the big hit: Christopher Bruce’s Rooster, to the Rolling Stones. It’s been forever since Tharp ushered in the era of the pop-hit ballet with the Beach Boys (Deuce Coupe), and no one’s ever done it better, except Tharp herself. Elvis, Prince, Beck, Springsteen, the Andrews Sisters (Paul Taylor’s wonderful Company B)—you name it, someone’s danced it. But the Stones? I wouldn’t have thought so, but from the first moment, when Tobin Del Cuore comes out strutting and pecking to “Little Red Rooster,” you know you’re in good hands. There were no low points and lots of high ones: a fabulous guy, Isaac Spencer, in an ecstasy of rock dancing to “Not Fade Away”; a beauty named Charlaine Katsuyoshi, lyrical yet expansive in “Ruby Tuesday”; an explosive finish—with wit, yet!—to “Sympathy for the Devil.” Rooster was created, oddly enough, for the Grand Théâtre de Genève. That was in 1991, and it only came into the Hubbard Street repertory last year. It’s a keeper.

But more important than any of its individual works is the company itself. This isn’t a case of first-rate dancers in a corrupt repertory—the Ailey story. Yes, the repertory may err on the side of High Seriousness (don’t worry, Rooster isn’t even Low Serious), but it suits the dancers, and they respond to it fully. The best thing you can say about Hubbard Street is that if you were a dancer, this is a company you’d fight to get into.

Smuin’s Pointless Nostalgia;  Hubbard Street’s Sheer Joy