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“Medea”: The Smuin Ballet at the Joyce Theater

August 31, 2012

Robin Cornwell as Medea Photo by Marty Sohl

Micheal Smuin’s “Medea” was created in 1977, while Mr. Smuin was still Artistic Director of the San Francisco Ballet; it is a twisted tale of a woman scorned and her willingness to go to the most extreme means in order to extract revenge.

Micheal Smuin drew inspiration for his ballet from the Greek tragedy by Euripides. Medea was the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the wife of the hero Jason with whom she has two sons. Jason leaves Medea when Creon, king of Corinth, offers him his daughter, Cresusa. Jason tells Medea it is not for love that he promised to marry the princess, but to win wealth and power for himself and his sons. For this betrayal Medea extracts her revenge upon Jason by murdering their two sons.

Thick with drama, Susan Roemer as Medea never once allowed us to question her sense of outrage and betrayal. When the curtain rises we see Ms. Roemer wrapped in a long black cape from which a billowy fog (perhaps more apply the simmering smoke of hell) seeks escape from its confines. As she opens the cape, the smoke swirls across the stage, Ms. Roemer steps forth, she is dressed in a blood-red leotard, it is not lost that red is the color of passion, the color of rage, the color of blood.

Ms. Roemer played her rage well. It was not outspoken, no stomping steps of anger, but subtle lyrical undercurrents as of something still simmering, yet to have boiled-over. We see in her movements the gears of her working mind as she best decides the most apt way to injure Jason to the very core of his existence.

Micheal Smuin’s “Medea” Photo by Ken Friedman

Mythology has Medea as instrumental in Jason’s success, for without her guidance Jason would have never have recovered the Golden Fleece. Medea assisted Jason in his many tests, either with the use of her magical herbs or through her arcane knowledge. Medea was believed to have been a priestess of the goddess Hecate and/or a witch herself. Medea made great sacrifices to become the wife of Jason, in some accounts she even murders her own brother. So it is not surprising the extremes she is willing to go for revenge.

Joshua Reynolds as Jason was the picture of what a great hero should be, tall, strong and handsome. His portrayal of Jason at first seemed to lack the depth of commitment shown by Ms. Roemer but that myth was shattered when Mr. Reynolds discovers the body of Cresusa. His anguish evident on his face, in his body and in his dancing, you felt his pain. Mr. Reynolds has it all, good looks, a long clean line and excellent technique, I could not have thought of a better Jason.

But enough cannot be said for John Speed Orr and Christian Squires; they were brilliant in not just Medea but the rest of the night’s offered repertory as well. As the sons of Jason and Medea, they portrayed their roles with a sense of youth’s innocence mixed with a righteous anger towards their father. They loved and supported their mother to point of actually assisting in the murder of Cresusa.

Mr. Orr and Mr. Squires are both superb technicians, but it is more than that, they are the dancers you crave to see dance. Both possessing excellent facilities for dance, their movements are strong and fluid, gliding from one movement to the next. When they exited the stage you waited for their return.

With the loss of Cresusa, Jason becomes a figure forsaken, desolated by such adversity. Medea, wrapped in her black flowing cape like royalty, is cold and distant. When she opens her cape she reveals the murdered bodies of the two brothers, the blood still fresh, their bodies wrapped around each other, as if one is trying to comfort the other, even while dying. As Ms. Roemer callously steps over the dead body of their sons, she gives Jason a look of such haughtiness, such anger and indignity is if to say, what did you expect!

Medea is a brilliantly wonderful ballet, a true legacy of Micheal Smuin’s great talent; I hope I get the chance to see it again, but next time with the set and backdrop. It is sad that there were not more of Mr. Smuin’s work in the program, especially after I saw the other two pieces.

Trey McIntyre’s “Oh, Inverted World” I just did not get. At the very beginning it looked like it was going to be great! The curtain rises and a group of dancers walk on stage, shoulders hunched with their left arm on the shoulder of the person in front of them. They moved as a group in lock step cross the stage disappearing into the wings. Oh, goody this going to be good, I thought, but alas…this was as innovative as it got. The movement choices were mediocre and the piece lacked originality. I have seen this dance a dozen times, just with different music and produced by different choreographers.

As to the costumes, I did not understand how they related to whatever mumbling Mr. McIntyre was hoping to say. The men, all in a different color running shorts with head and wristbands, the type used by tennis players to help with sweat and the women were in gladiator skirts with chemise tops.

Benjamin Behrends, Jane Rehm & company “Oh, Inverted World”. Photo by David Allen

Now there were brief flashes of interest in the piece. John Speed Orr stands in a square of light and we are treated to the excellence of his dancing. He was crisp and clear in his movement and his phrasing has a unique lyricism, plus he has with an excellent line. He is the type of dancer that could make anything look good and that is what he was doing with this piece.

I kept saying to myself, I know I should like this but I just can’t. It was like a social dance experiment gone wrong. My companion (who I am taking to see way to much dance, I fear she is becoming jaded), referred to it as sophomoric.

The music was The Shins, if you every have trouble sleeping, put them on, they will knock you right out. Imagine something retro 60’s, a mediocre Beatles cover band and Muzak (…you know, like when in an elevator and your forced to listen to Muskrat Love played on a synthesizer) combine all three and you have The Shins.

Amy Seiwert’s “Soon These Two Worlds” was bit more upbeat. Set to Kronos Quartet’s “Pieces of Africa” It was light and friendly and I found myself with a smile on my face. The costumes by Christine Darch were the added bonus to the work, a tight bodysuit of large angled colored strips, they, with lighting gave an added dimension to the work. Amy Seiwert is choreographer in residence for the Smuin Ballet.

Erin Yarbrough-Stewart & Aaron Thayer in “Soon These Two Worlds”. Photo by Scot Goodman

I admit, the Smuin Ballet was a bit of a disappointment. It certainly was not the dancers’ fault, all I thought excellent. But when you put works up alongside Micheal Smuin’s, they need to be strong works. Unfortunately Trey McIntyre’s “Oh, Inverted World” and Amy Seiwert’s “Soon These Two Worlds” does not fit the bill. I realize that Celia Fushille’s goal is to prevent Smuin Ballet from becoming a museum company, but you have to get up fairly early in the morning to match the bar Mr. Smuin has raised.


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