The stage, the lights and a lack of pink tutus— standard ballet wasn’t on display when Smuin Ballet rolled into the Montana Theatre in the PARTV center on campus Sunday night. The critically-acclaimed company, founded by former Missoulian Michael Smuin, impressed a packed house Sunday night with three well-choreographed and nuanced pieces.
The program “Swing, Sizzle, and Strut” consisted of three acts that sought to do just as their clever title implied.
“Dear Miss Cline” harkened back to a World War II-era soaked exclusively in Patsy Cline, where the men looked like fresh GI soldiers and Rosie the Riveter was the every woman. A swing-style ballet was on the palette, saturated in red and white, from the candy stripes to the polka dots. Cline’s signature crooning help drive the pieces as themes such as young love, cheating hearts and ‘the one that got away’ help to lay a narrative foundation for the act.
“Jazzin’” fast-forwarded to a sleeker modern age adorned with highly stylized dancing and more suggestive pieces. Red and white gave way to neon as the only thing flashier than the performers’ outfits was the dancing on the stage. Duke Ellington pushed the act’s looser narrative as more interpretive and classical ballet began to make an appearance. However, this would quickly dissolve back and into shape wear and spark at any moment’s notice.
“Fly Me to the Moon” threw the chronology back in reverse to take on Ol’ Blue Eyes work in a number steamed in Sinatra and washed in the Rat Pack. Pastel vests, dresses and bowler hats moved to Sinatra classics with elements of tap thrown in for good measure. Artificial moonlight cast the dancers under a never-ending twilight set that was perfectly illustrated for pieces such as “Moonlight Serenade,” “The Lady is a Tramp” and the titular “Fly Me to the Moon.”
The performance garnered a near 3-minute standing ovation from the crowd. Artistic and executive director Celia Fushille appeared overjoyed after the performance, gushing over the night’s production.
“I’m just so thrilled tonight.” Fushille said. “It was artistically and technically a really good show…I’m just so proud of the dancers.”
Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, Fushille brought the program back to Montana for the first time in nearly six years.
“In the past we used to come annually as a benefit for the McLaughlin Research Institute,” Fushille said. “However, it hasn’t worked out in the last few years with the downturn in the economy.”
Born in Missoula in 1938, Michael Smuin left home at age 15 on a ballet scholarship from the University of Utah. By 17, he was dancing for the San Francisco Ballet, and later served as principal dancer for both it and the American Ballet Theatre. From 1973-85 he was the co-artistic director for the San Francisco Ballet.
In 1994 Smuin shook up the ballet world by blending classical ballet with elements of the theatrical. Popular elements of other dance forms, as well as uncharacteristic music, made Smuin’s ballet unique and help to bring ballet into the 21st century.
He took on everything from circus acts and ice dance to Hollywood movies and Broadway shows across his career. He was an Emmy and Tony Award winner for outstanding achievements in choreography and best direction of a musical.
Smuin’s passing in 2007 made coming back to Montana difficult for the company. Nevertheless with the show celebrating its 20th anniversary, Fushille worked to ensure a Missoula show.
“I thought to myself we just had to get back to Michael’s home state for the anniversary,” Fushille said. “We just have to.”
Being based out of the Bay Area often brings more stress for the traveling tour. Marketing Director Mary Hand says it required everyone working diligently to make it possible to do the anniversary show.
“It was quite an endeavor scheduling to get everyone here,” Hand said. “We’ve done New York and Europe, but even Montana really requires some planning.”
“We’re a tight knit group anyway, but being on the road is always a real bonding experience” Hand said. “It’s certainly something that we enjoy.”
Smuin Ballet will continue their tour of Montana performing as a benefit for the McLaughlin Research Institute for Biomedical Research in Great Falls on Friday.