When Smuin Ballet was created in 1994, it showcased a particular brand of dance showmanship tied to Broadway-style acts, the Vegas floor show and classical ballet. It meant that the company dashed from light, entertaining variety numbers to simple narratives to light classicism. In some hands, such as the late choreographer Pina Bausch's, such a smorgasbord might have been a boon. But in Michael Smuin's, it became a predictable and often sexist groove, and it grew dated quickly.
Now branded as "beyond ballet," the company on Saturday at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek seemed to have given itself over to a new era. It struck a well-chosen balance between the late choreographer's work and the innovations of two young choreographers, and its dancers danced with a new athletic and dramatic conviction, looking at home in almost every dance they touched.
Smuin's interest in crossing genre boundaries is alive and well, but other artists are now leading the way. Louisville Ballet's resident choreographer, Adam Hougland, set his "Cold Virtues" (2003) on the company this past fall, and on Saturday it hit all the right notes, and the company shined. Set to Philip Glass' plangent Violin Concerto No. 1, the dance embodied the kind of virtues a chamber company needs -- meaningful movement, inventive physicality and a complex understanding of the body in space and time.
Based loosely on Choderlos de Laclos' 18th-century novel in letters, "Les Liaisons dangereuses," a tale of amoral nobles who destroy others for the pleasure of it, "Cold Virtues" is notable not for its literary references but for its way around the stage. Its secret was in how it blended a rich, sculptural sense of spatial volumes harkening back to early modern dance with the fractured, deeply expressive gestural language of postmodernism that was never literal. This gave Hougland the tools to create a fraught moral world where one couple (Jane Rehm and Jonathan Mangosing) is in icy control while an innocent set of lovers (Erin Yarbrough and John Speed Orr) are lured into their destructive web.
Even though the narrative at times felt like an interloper in a dance that has no real need of one, Hougland cleverly launched an emerging cat's cradle through one signature action: Rehm and Mangosing held their hands at the hips, fingers fanning out like dangerous and calculating tentacles reminiscent of the gestures of midcentury choreographers. As their duet sliced through the action of the group, that coldness cut like a knife through the spirit of the group.
The anguish that amassed was expressed through the whole body by the central lovers, Yarbrough and Orr, as well as by the ensemble. They performed abrupt backdrops to the floor, plunging arabesques, melting lifts and stretched out their vulnerable wrists and palms in supplication.
Dressed in Marion Williams' sepia toned costumes and beautifully lit by Michael T. Ford, the ensemble resembled a Greek chorus whose twisting limbs, soaring arches and aching backbends told the real story.
In whimsical contrast, Trey McIntyre's "Oh, Inverted World," first premiered by Smuin in 2010, ended the program like a wacky day at the beach after a trauma. Set to hummable tunes by the Shins and costumed in Sandra Woodall's gym shorts for the men and shorts and tank tops for the women, the work came off Saturday as a witty romp full of melting limbs that rendered the group a kind of blind centipede, able to shrink and expand organically. It's a dance too thin for a stage like Zellerbach's, but sized right for the Lesher, where its sweetness and humor hit the audience like welcomed bursts of summer air.
The evening opened with Smuin's "Starshadows" (1998), which set three couples in black dreamily circling against a backdrop of stars to Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. It was followed by "No Viviré" (1994), an earnest though flawed effort to pair flamenco and street dance with ballet, set to music by the Gipsy Kings and by Paul Simon and Joseph Shabalala.
Ann Murphy is assistant professor and chair of the Mills College dance department. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Presents Adam Hougland's "Cold Virtues," Trey McIntyre's "Oh, Inverted World" and three short works by Michael Smuin
When and where: 8 p.m. Feb. 20-23, 2 p.m. Feb. 23-24, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts; 8 p.m. March 8, 2 p.m. March 9, Sunset Center in Carmel
Tickets: $52-$68; 650-903-6000 for Mountain View, 831-620-2048 for Carmel, www.smuinballet.org.