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Flash Flashback, 4-26: The Mark of Smuin
New "Zorro" from an Old Master

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Review originally appeared on May 28, 2003.)

By Aimée Ts’ao
Copyright 2007 Aimée Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- If you are hungry or have a sweet tooth, please beware the following analogy. There are two kinds of fluff in the arts. One is "cotton candy," cheap, easy to make, bright pink, super sweet with no interplays of flavor or texture, found mostly in places for entertaining the masses like amusement parks. The second is an intricate concoction from a French patisserie, whipped cream, chocolate, nuts and a hint of liqueur, tantalizing the tongue with subtle suggestions of shifting gustatory liaisons, lots of calories with no nutritional substance, yet utterly delightful. I had gone to see Michael Smuin's latest creation, "Zorro," performed by his own Smuin Ballet at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater on May 14, expecting to choke on cotton candy, only to be very pleasantly treated to a delicious dessert.

After a rather dull meal of Smuin's "Carmina Burana" to the ever-popular score by Carl Orff, I pray that "Zorro" will rekindle my childhood infatuation with the masked swordsman and not disappoint the closet romantic in me. At first, my usual cynical self sits and waits to cringe at an overdrawn hero, but in the very first scene, Smuin makes me laugh by having the heroine, Rosa, stripped down to her frilly underwear by Capitan Monastario as he attempts to accost her and by Zorro as he saves her. Not to worry, obviously the choreographer isn't taking his subject too seriously, and sees this as an opportunity to have fun. The story by Matthew Robbins cleverly moves back and forth between the life of Emilio, a movie usher in Los Angeles circa 1959 who idolizes Zorro, and his fantasies about the Ticket Seller, who appears as Rosa in the Zorro sections that appear as movies at the theater.

The commissioned music by Charles Fox, who also wrote the score for Smuin's acclaimed "A Song for Dead Warriors," is eclectic, a little "West Side Story" here, a dash of Gershwin there, but ultimately perfect for the story. It sweeps along like movie music should and has a good show song and dance feel to it when appropriate. In fact, all the elements of the production come together seamlessly. The stage decor by Douglas W. Schmidt is simple yet conveys perfectly the mood for each scene. Especially stunning is the ballroom, where white ropes tied back suggest cinched curtains. And Ann Beck's costumes for this, in black, white and silver are absolutely beautiful. The rest of her designs are colorful and capture both the old Spanish American and '50s Hollywood eras. Sara Linnie Slocum's lighting creates some of the best moments when a row of theater seats filled with moviegoers faces the audience and with lighting alone she convinces you that they are really watching a movie. And the fluid sword fighting, presumably created with the help of Fencing Master Richard Lane, is quite exciting.
Zorro  
Smuin Ballet's Easton Smith, Rodolphe Cassand, and Shannon Hurlburt in Michael Smuin's "Zorro." Tom Hauck photo courtesy Carla Befera & Company PR.

The dancers deserve a lot of credit, too, for bringing the story to life. While they seemed oddly expressionless in "Carmina Burana," perhaps they were saving themselves for "Zorro"; their exuberance in it is infectious. Rodolphe Cassand is dashingly suave as the head swashbuckler, Zorro and hilarious as Don Diego, a fop. Emilio, as portrayed by Shannon Hurlbert, grows from a wistful loser dreaming of winning the heart of the object of his fantasies, to a confident real-life hero who gets his girl. Hurlbert also does a wonderful dance with a ladder used to change the letters on the theater marquee. Claudia Alfieri plays both the Ticket Seller and Rosa, neither as a wilting violet victim, but as a feisty woman who knows what she wants. As her tormentors, the Theater Owner and Capitan Monastario, Easton Smith creates excellent caricatures of the archetypal villain. The rest of the dancers inhabit their roles with utmost conviction, from popcorn munching spectators to aristocrats at a ball.
Zorro Smuin Ballet's Claudia Alfieri and Easton Smith in Michael Smuin's "Zorro." Tom Hauck photo courtesy Carla Befera & Company PR.

Smuin has come up with a winner in "Zorro," though that shouldn't really be surprising as his forte is the Broadway show, and here he is definitely in his realm. Not only does he succeed in the broad picture, mainly due to the libretto by Robbins, but he has added many small touches which add the extra kick. For example, Emilio uses his flashlight while shadowing Zorro as he fights with a sword. And Don Diego distracts Monastario by doing magic tricks, including flowers in a bouquet that he plucks out and throws as darts. Emilio and the Theater Owner duel with umbrellas, and when Emilio wins, he embraces the Ticket Seller, holding both umbrellas behind her back and crossing the handles to form a heart. Some of it is a little corny, but it works in this context. Obviously a steady diet of fluff will have a disasterous effect on both waistline and mental faculties. But in these depressing times, sometimes we need to escape, retreat into a fantasy world and allow ourselves the time to regenerate so as to better confront the inequities in the world when we get back to reality. Sometimes we just need to have fun.

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