It’s almost stupefying that the Smuin Contemporary Ballet can still be astounding after all these years.
Consider the troupe’s latest production, “Dance Series 1.” Arriving at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco, I’d expected “Take Five,” a world premiere based on the 1959 tour de force jazz recording by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, would be my favorite segment.
But it wasn’t.
“Carmina Burana” was — despite the dance number having debuted in 1997, despite it containing many more classical dance moves than either the Brubeck standard or “The Man in Black,” both of which preceded it on the program.
The powerful piece, choreographed by company founder Michael Smuin, was highlighted by women on point, but its real strength relied on male movements to Carl Orff’s primitive, complex vocal and orchestral harmonies evoking the medieval music of six centuries past when the focus was on folk songs about drinking, lust and gluttony.
Program notes indicate the composition offered a “rich variety of music to interpret: noble, vicious, romantic, bitter, joyous, sinister.”
Smuin’s choreography and the dramatic potency of Sara Linnie Slocum’s lighting design and Michael Oesch’s lighting adaptation elicited visions of all those factors.
And, with them, intense emotions.
Clearly, most the audience felt them since applause broke out after each segment (and a “standing ‘o’” followed the piece’s conclusion).
Smuin once noted that “fragmentary stories kept appearing” to him as he explored the lyrics — unsurprising, he added, “since I believe all dance is a kind of story-telling.”
A concept easy to grok when watching his work.
Most pleasing was the graceful fluidity of Tessa Barbour, who starred in two solo segments and three duets.
The concert’s middle segment, “The Man in Black,” spotlighted four dancers line- and square-dancing and doing the two-step to music by Nine-Inch Heels (“Hurt”), the Beatles (“In My Life”) and a handful of other recorded covers by country-pop legend Johnny Cash.
It was painful to again hear the aging Cash’s cracking, frail voice but equally gut-wrenching to watch choreographer James Kudelka’s repetitive creation that, while celebrating the vigor of masculinity, explored vulnerability and resilience.
It was easy, however, to stare at Terez Dean Orr, the high-kicking, lone fringe-skirted female among the black clad, cowboy boot-wearing quartet of dancers — and to appreciate a fleeting choreographed fight.
I also could appreciate hearing “Take Five” begin with the voice of Brubeck explaining his cowboy origins — a faint connection to the “The Man in Black” portion of the program.
Still, the tune composed by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond is so exquisite it was tough to relate to some of the choreography ex-Smuin dancer Rex Wheeler intended as playfulness.
At times, the dancing seemed to lag behind the oft-frenetic pace of the music.
Also slightly off-putting was Kaori Higashiyama’s startling costuming (hot chartreuse, pinks and blues), which could be distracting rather than fun.
As in the past, though, Ben Needham-Wood’s body and foot-work was enthralling, his duet with Lauren Pschirrer (“Memories of You”) in particular as well as his cast work — mesmerizing, perhaps, because virtually everyone knew he was giving up dancing at the end of this season to concentrate on choreographing.
Many in the crowd smiled, too, when female dancers in non-sexual sexuality stroked the thighs of a stationary male.
My wife, a piano player herself, couldn’t keep her eyes off a sequence in which the performers used their hands to simulate playing the 88s on invisible keyboards.
In an introduction to all three segments, Celia Fushille, the troupe’s artistic director, forecast that the season’s opener would be eclectic.
Comments from the crowd also indicated approval of dancers periodically integrating meaningful dance movements before and after recordings began and ended.
As always in Smuin concerts, insertion of humor was captivating. This go-‘round, a memorable moment came when dancers reversed the usual: a female picked up and wrapped a male around her body.
Most impressive, however, was the consistently amazing physicality of all the exhaustingly rehearsed dancers, so much so it wasn’t surprising to find the program of the two-hour (plus two intermissions) show listing a “wellness team” of 17 physical therapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and orthopedic specialists.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s “Dance Series 1,” which started off at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, will continue at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco through Oct. 6. Next up for the troupe is “The Christmas Ballet” from Nov. 22 through Dec. 29 and “Dance Series 2” from April 24 through June 6, both of them in four venues.