outgoing director of the San Francisco Ballet -- is truly mind-blowing. Only in America, where shopping malls shove pizza, bagels, egg rolls, pita bread, chili, hot dogs, falafel, chocolate croissants and pepperoni subs into instant juxtaposition, would the Smuin phenomenon ever be conceivable.
The big hit with the audience for the San Francisco troupe's opening night at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday was Smuin's "A Song for Dead Warriors," an agitprop ballet about the plight of the American Indian. An even bigger hit, however, was the same choreographer's "To the Beatles," the finale of last night's program.
The ballets may have been different in mood and subject matter, but the main reason for their success here may be much the same; namely, Smuin's brilliant and facile showmanship. It's the very quality that at once drew unprecedented numbers of patrons to the company's home performances over the last decade, and at the same time, got Smuin into the hot water that led to his recent unceremonious ousting as director.
But the paradox goes deeper, and last night's program was an amazing exposition of its artistic ramifications.
"To the Beatles" is a "loaded" ballet in the same way as "A Song for Dead Warriors" -- any dance work based on that music, just as any dealing with the maltreatment of native Americans, would be bound to have its many adherents apart from the quality of the dance involved. "Song," in my estimation, is a work of considerable dance substance, whatever its ultimate artistic worth. "To the Beatles," on the other hand, is an incredible goulash of a piece -- a junk-food ballet if ever there was one. It's as if Smuin tossed in every carnival trick and histrionic gimmick he could muster, everything, that is, except anything clearly relating to the spirit, the times or the texts of the Beatles' songs. The odd thing is that if this same work had been mounted 20 years ago -- at the height of Beatle mania -- an audience that had paid to see classical ballet would in all likelihood have laughed or hooted it off the stage.
"To the Beatles" may be unique for its sheer mongrelization of style and multiplicity of meretricious effects. Within the course of the ballet, one gets moonwalks, electric boogie, flash dance, aerobics, punk brawls, schmaltzy love duets, a real motorcycle, magic tricks, baton twirling, a neon ballet barre, contortionist acrobatics, and a shower of tinsel. Perhaps the quintessential number is the one set to George Harrison's raga-influenced "Within You, Without You," featuring a male soloist and 18 bared-midriff female dancers, not in classical Hindu dancing or any simulacrum thereof, but in cabaret-style belly dances and hip rolls.
Yet on the same program were two other Smuin ballets of a wholly different character -- "Brahms-Haydn Variations," a tasteful and musical sample of contemporary classicism, and the Balcony Pas De Deux from "Romeo and Juliet," a passable bit of neoRomantic flamboyance, not easily distinguishable from many other choreographies to the same Prokofiev score. I doubt that Smuin himself makes any distinctions of basic approach to these various creations. Rather, much like, say, Gerald Arpino of the Joffrey Ballet, with whom he shares many traits, Smuin considers it a choreographer's prime business to please the public -- something he's obviously skilled at doing.
Some commentators have tried to define a difference between Smuin and Lew Christensen -- artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet from 1952 (and codirector with Smuin from 1976) until his death last year -- on the basis of Smuin being a "populist" choreographer and Christensen a classical one. Their backgrounds, though, were quite similar. The real difference would seem to be more a matter of generation and mind set. Christensen, like Smuin, had a lot of experience with popular dance theater -- as a young man, he toured with brother Willam on the RKO vaudeville circuit -- and a decided flair for comedy, as last night's account of his 1953 ballet farce, "Con Amore," plainly showed. If there are miles between the literate, satirical wit and popular flavor of "Con Amore," on the one hand, and the anything-goes razzle-dazzle of "To the Beatles" on the other, it's a distance measured by era and taste, not technique.
In any case, the San Francisco dancers upheld their opening-night impression of versatility, skill and vitality throughout this second program. Ricardo Bustamante, Catherine Batcheller, Evelyn Cisneros, Daniel Meja and Laurie Cowden glittered appealingly in "Brahms-Haydn Variations," and Victoria Morgan, Andre Reyes, Anita Paciotti and Wendy Van Dyck were the disarming principals in "Con Amore." The company's two programs will repeat through Sunday afternoon.