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Dance to the Music 

Two local choreographers bring the songs onto the stage

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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May is the month of exuberantly blooming flowers, a seeming profusion of women overripe with babies, and boisterous assemblies of birds and bees. It's also the lush, green bridge to summer, so it seems fitting that two romantics, Michael Smuin of Smuin Ballets/SF and Reginald Savage, director of the Savage Jazz Dance Company, open during the same May week at different ends of the city. One is a hoofer making ballet, the other a ballet man working with pure jazz.

Michael Smuin, born in Missoula, Mont., ran the San Francisco Ballet in its quieter, backwater days when a certain amount of schmaltz was as acceptable an ingredient in local concert dance as it is in any good chicken soup. He's a guy very much like his works: straightforward, fervent, and varnished by a charming but young sentimentality. It's an American sentimentality -- blustery but deeply chivalrous, reminiscent of James Cagney as the guy who vanquishes the bullies with both hands tied behind his back (and who, in the end, gets the wholesome, sexy girl).

Smuin began his career studying ballet under the famous Christensen brothers in Utah and San Francisco, danced and choreographed for nightclubs and TV as well as at American Ballet Theater, then took over as director of San Francisco Ballet until he was ousted by the board in 1985. He has followers from Times Square to Market Street, people who would choose one of his concerts over one by San Francisco Ballet's current director, Helgi Tomasson, any day. His Web site assigns him the power of a natural force, claiming his fans are left "Smuin-less" when his programs are sold out.

Reginald Savage hails from Chicago, from the groundbreaking Katherine Dunham Dance Company and the ballet rigors of Ruth Pages' Ballet Chicago. He believes in fierce discipline, citing George Balanchine and famed football coach Vince Lombardi as his ideals. Not unlike Balanchine, he regards dance as a form of love, a seduction between the dance and the music, leading to interplay that can be sublime -- or simply fun. As an African-American man bringing jazz dance to the concert stage, he is also aware of "the racial overtones" in how Americans deal with music. As he said one recent morning in a phone interview, it has "taken the culture quite a while to get comfortable with jazz and to take it seriously."

Both choreographers are driven by sound. Smuin, who chose an all-Gershwin program for his upcoming run, composes dances that are almost inevitably twined with a 1950s kind of love, where fiercely conventional roles (the beefcake guy, the pert and sexy gal) are occasionally allowed an orgiastic breakthrough to happiness and freedom. Savage, in contrast, uses his young dancers in a way similar to the way his colleague, composer and bandleader Marcus Shelby, uses his orchestra -- to convey nuanced moods, inner states, and individual temperaments as pieces of a complex intellectual, sensual, and emotional whole.

Smuin -- whose Broadway-inflected Dancin' With Gershwin ranges musically from sung ballads to piano concertos by brothers Ira and George -- becomes smitten by sound long before any steps come out of him. "I think sound was the first art, from the time cavemen began pounding out rhythms on their chests," he said last week following rehearsal, his impatient gaze returning constantly to the clutch of dancers ironing out movements. "Music is always the first thing that gets me going. There may be a story or a narrative, but it's music that grabs me by the throat and says, "Dance to me!'" Once he nails down the sound, he studies that piece so thoroughly he's convinced he could conduct it.

In 1996, Smuin put together a big Gershwin anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, and after four years, finally gained the rights to use the music for his own full-length Gershwin night. The upcoming program includes a soundtrack of Al Jolson singing "Swanee" and Nat King Cole performing "Love Is Here to Stay," but there are also love duets, chorus lines, and beefcake numbers. In one of the hunk pieces, dancers Rudolph Cassand, Ben Marret, and Shannon Hulbert perform an exciting, patriotic trio with guns, swords, flags, marching, color guard flourishes, and plenty of virtuosic jumps. "The dance is always in the music," Smuin said, referring to the march. "The architecture is there -- I just go and build on it. Here, three guys come in on this music because it's nice and ballsy." He sees Gershwin's "Concerto in F" differently: "I always saw this music as two couples in conflict -- as this guy stuck with this girl, and this girl stuck with that guy, and wanting a change."

Savage is similarly compelled. "For me, there's no way I can choreograph without music being the driving force," he says. "I grew up believing that music is a female muse, so to have movement without music is like some guy saying to a woman, "I can make love to you and I'll do all the work. You just lie there.' That's what it's like. But what I do for Sharon isn't what I'm going to do for Sally! I let the music dictate what happens to it."

Savage Jazz Dance and Shelby's 15-piece jazz orchestra open at the Cowell Theater in A Night on the Barbary Coast, which features music by Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter, and original compositions by Shelby, himself an award-winning composer, Ellington expert, and the music director for Intersection for the Arts. What sets Savage apart from any other choreographer in the area is that he begins with a ballet base for his jazz pieces but then makes his dancers interact improvisationally with the orchestra, as though they were musical instruments. According to Shelby, this interplay between sound and movement keeps the rhythmic dynamic alive. "The dancers are very raw at the same time they're performing beautiful lines and spins. It's an energetic exchange between us. The whole idea is that the musicians don't have to tone it down or play underneath. We can blow." The dancers are expected to meet them in that unbuttoned zone.

Some dance-makers ignore the music. But these two can't. For them the music is the muse, the lover, the mysterious other. "I can make love to myself," Savage says, referring to his pieces, "but it's best to have someone with me."

About The Author

Ann Murphy

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