Choreographer Brian Reeder set a high and witty bar Thursday night when Company C Contemporary Ballet opened its winter run at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.
A former dancer with New York City Ballet, Ballet Frankfurt and American Ballet Theatre and now a freelance choreographer, Reeder peopled his latest work, "Being Served," with a maid, a butler and a swank dinner party crowd. Right away, he launched the capable cast into taut movement sequences that expressed repression, bitterness and yearning, followed later by sexual abandon, chaos and a whole lot of dying.
This was a multifaceted, tightly packaged comic drama built from elegant duets and ensemble work. It knew what it was about -- it was part paean to the genre of psychological ballets that sprang up in the 1940s, and part homage to film, master painting ("The Last Supper") and, particularly, film noir. Reeder eloquently quoted the 20th-century dramatic dances while leaving behind their overheated earnestness. He gave us a contemptuous brush of the arm from Jose Limon's tragedy "The Moor's Pavane"; a duet sequence echoing Antony Tudor's despairing "Jardin Aux Lilas"; and an insulting gesture that Mercutio dangerously doles out in "Romeo and Juliet."
Then, once the couples' restraint loosened and the party took on the air of a bacchanal, with standout performances by Kristin Lindsay and Bobby Briscoe, "Being Served" turned gothic. Working in the tradition of today's gold standard in television -- everything from "Breaking Bad" to "True Blood" -- the gothic next got elegantly campy.
The maid and butler joined the crowd as it ripped up the stage, then they set about poisoning the posh party goers. When the diners finally collapsed into their chairs, the servants pushed the dead into their plates with the same brusque air as Mrs. Lovett dispenses with the bodies in "Sweeney Todd." The dying doesn't end there, nor does the humor. A bit over the top? Indeed.
This wry homage to American values on the skids had a strange coda. It came in the evening's closing work, a world premiere choreographed by former Paul Taylor dancer Patrick Corbin, a thumping dance titled "For Use in Subhuman Primates Only," set to music by the British duo Massive Attack. The title is the cautionary warning on bottles of an anesthetic designed for cats and primates but used as a party high that induces floaty, near-deathlike dissociation from the body -- and this captured the dance maker's vision of a zombiesque afterlife. If only Corbin had shared some of his fellow choreographer's sensibilities, then the ravelike, monochromatic weirdness of "For Use" might have seemed ironic rather than portentous.
The rest of the evening had a scattershot feel. On the heels of "Being Served," Company C director Charles Anderson premiered "Polyglot," a dance that began sweetly, with the cast dressed as circus figures that respond to comical horn beeps, typewriter clacks and insect buzzes. But the work got abruptly hijacked by an accent-thick text about multiple identity, as though another artist had crept in and taken over.
In the middle of the program, Anderson staged an excerpt of his 2010 "Beautiful Maladies," offering up six familiar jazz tunes. He set a small cast of dancers turning and stepping in what often looked like pleasurable but unformed noodling. Jacqueline McConnell is someone to watch with her sinewy elegance, and Bobby Briscoe and David Van Ligon shared fleeting moments of power in their male-male pairings. If only Anderson allowed these to develop, he might have taken us somewhere beautiful -- with or without the maladies.
Company C Contemporary Ballet presents world premieres by Brian Reeder, Charles Anderson and Patrick Corbin
When and where: 8 p.m. Jan. 18 and 3 and 8 p.m. Jan. 19 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek; 8 p.m. Feb. 7 and 8, 6 p.m. Feb. 9 and 3 p.m. Feb. 10 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco
How much: $23-$45, 925-943-7469, www.lesherartscenter.org; 415-978-2787, www.ybca.org