Bodies appear like sculptural works beneath dramatic lights, couples bound through space with refined grace and a tempestuous love affair ends in tragedy. In Smuin Ballet's latest repertory program, there's a little something for everyone.
Next week, the San Francisco-based contemporary ballet company brings "Untamed" to Mountain View's Center for the Performing Arts. Twenty-one years in and eight years after the death of its founder, Michael Smuin, Smuin Ballet seems to have found its place in the dance world as a small but mighty repertory company with a flair for high-wattage entertainment, a broad appeal and an increasing ability to attract some of the best performers and choreographers in the business.
According to artistic director Celia Fushille, "Untamed" honors Michael Smuin's legacy of smart, sexy dances that took risks and helped align the tradition of classical ballet with contemporary popular culture.
"He was fearless about choosing things that were unexpected," Fushille said of Smuin in a recent phone interview. "There was always some element of surprise."
In this program, Fushille has combined one of Smuin's own works -- the narrative ballet "Frankie & Johnny" from 1996 -- with two very different works: Amy Seiwert's abstract ballet, "Objects of Curiosity," and Garrett Ammon's athletic and lyrical "Serenade for Strings."
Like the 1966 Elvis film set on a Mississippi riverboat, "Frankie & Johnny" tells the story of a young woman driven to violence by her lover's infidelity. Smuin set his ballet in Cuba, bringing mambo music and bright tropical colors to the sinister tale of passion and jealousy. Smuin dedicated the work to Gene Kelly, drawing on the late, great dancer's favored jazz idiom as well as classical ballet technique.
Soloist Susan Roemer dances the part of Frankie, and called the ballet "a compact drama."
"It's basically an entire love story that buds and unfolds in under 30 minutes," she explained. "It's pretty intense." Because the ballet centers on adult themes, it's not recommended for young children.
Back in 1996 when Smuin created the work for his company, it was Fushille who danced the role of Frankie, so she brings a personal touch to her coaching of the dancers and her vision of the work.
"The bulk of the dance takes place in Johnny's saloon," she explained, "so even the dancers who are patrons in the bar are helping tell the story. It's fun to coach them in terms of their individual characters."
For audience members less familiar with contemporary ballet, "Frankie & Johnny" is an engrossing drama with an easy-to-follow storyline. It's a different story with "Objects of Curiosity," created by Smuin's choreographer-in-residence and former company member Amy Seiwert in 2007, shortly after Smuin's death, and recently restaged for the current company.
San Francisco-based Seiwert remembers the exact moment when the inspiration for the work hit.
"I was at the Whitney Museum in New York," she recalled. "I rode the elevator alone to the third floor, and the doors opened on this room with no one in it. The room was covered with that silver house insulation material that someone had graffitied all over, ... and there was this huge crystal chandelier. I felt like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz,' like I'd just dropped into a totally new world. I thought, 'How do I create a work where when the curtains open and the audience feels like this?'"
Seiwert's answer to her own question was "Objects of Curiosity," a work she described as "an installation meant to bring the audience in." Fushille, for her part, referred to "Objects of Curiosity" as "sculpture in motion."
"(Seiwert) has a beautiful ability to capture the human form in these sculptural moments that are just frozen in time, and then the lighting enhances that effect even more," Fushille said. "The dancers themselves become objects of curiosity."
Set to a lively score by Philip Glass and Gambian composer Foday Musa Suso, the dance features sleek costumes and technically complex choreography that demands strength and precision on the part of the dancers. Though Seiwert acknowledged her choreographic aesthetic is far from Smuin's own, she credited the late director with supporting her distinct creative vision.
"He thought what I did was kind of weird, and he loved it," she said. "He had faith in my voice, which was pretty different from his, and he encouraged me to follow it."
Today, Seiwert has works in the repertory of companies including American Repertory Ballet, Ballet Austin and Oakland Ballet, and she collaborates with companies and artists across North America.
If "Objects of Curiosity" challenges, "Serenade for Strings" enchants. Originally created for Ballet Nouveau Colorado in 2013, the work is set to Tchaikovsky's four-movement composition of the same name, and has, said Fushille, an effortless, organic quality. George Balanchine famously used the same score in his iconic 1934 work "Serenade"; Ammon replaces romantic tutus with contemporary shirt dresses, swaps out a female-heavy cast for five men and five women, and returns the movements of Tchaikovsky's score to their original order.
"Some contemporary choreographers try to be different for the sake of being different and the movement can come out as awkward, but (Ammon's) partnering makes sense for the dancer," noted Fushille. "This ballet just feels right -- the dancers love dancing it, and that's evident when you see it." Passages of lightning-fast meticulous footwork alternate with moments of gentle humor in "Serenade for Strings," which opens the program.
Taken together, these three works offer three distinct angles on the Smuin repertory and on the capabilities of the dancers. That's intentional, said Fushille.
"It might be surprising to put these works together, and yet my feeling is if the audience walks out of a theater after a triple bill and liked two of the three works, I've done my job."
The company's artistic director also recommended "Untamed" as a particularly good evening for those less familiar with ballet. "You don't need any special knowledge to appreciate musicality, athleticism, humor, drama and passion," she said.
"Untamed" also points to Fushille's larger agenda: to retain Michael Smuin's adventurous spirit and his beguiling choreography while bringing in new talent and broadening the company's repertory. More than two decades after Smuin first invited her to dance with his pick-up company, Fushille is now attracting internationally recognized talent to Smuin Ballet.
"I am often talking to Michael, wherever he is, and saying, 'Michael, I wish you could see these dancers: They're just incredible,'" she said. "We don't have Michael here creating new dances, but I retain works I feel have the same spirit and energy of his creations -- some of the humor and some of the fun."
Among the works Fushille has added to Smuin's repertory are two by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, widely considered one of the greatest contemporary dance choreographers alive today. Upcoming programs this season feature works by U.K. choreographer Adam Hougland, Chinese-born artist Ma Cong -- now resident choreographer with Tulsa Ballet -- and American ballet choreographer Helen Pickett, who danced for Ballet Frankfurt under contemporary ballet luminary William Forsythe.
For Smuin's dancers, an opportunity to perform works by such high-caliber artists while living on the West Coast and working for a relatively intimate ballet company is a rare gift.
"The diversity of the repertory we do at Smuin has really not been paralleled in my career, and the number of performances we have is really outstanding," said Roemer, explaining that because the company is small, every dancer gets a chance to shine. In order to keep things fresh with so much performing and touring, Smuin dancers often learn more than one role and perform with multiple casts; in this program Roemer will share the role of Frankie with dancer Erin Yarbrough.
"Sometimes you have to look down at your costume and think, 'Who am I tonight?'" Roemer laughed.
As one of the original cast members of "Objects of Curiosity" in 2007, Roemer also noted the value of returning to a work after a period of time away: "You pick up the choreography again and you can see how you've grown as a dancer and as an individual."
Those qualities of growth and change over time are central to what makes a live dance performance so exciting to watch, said Fushille.
"People should make a point of going out to experience live art because it's not the same as a video on YouTube that's been edited, or a movie clip someone has been over 20 times to make sure it's perfect," she said. "In that instant, the dancers are living it, and it will never be the same again. There's an electric energy on stage because of that, and it's a gift that we get to bring that to people."
What: "Untamed," presented by Smuin Ballet
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: March 19-22; Thursday-Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.
Cost: $52-$71, with discounts available for students and groups