Smuin Ballet is known for spice and sass, but this spring, it’s very serious and very Balanchine.
Onstage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the spring program includes “Swipe,” a recent work by Val Caniparoli, which opens with brisk, pulsating movements. Five dancers stand in a circle, swinging their arms, flicking their wrists and flexing their backs quickly — a gut-busting move for those with back problems.
The choreography is filled with nods to George Balanchine: hips jut and bodies link like synchronized swimmers. A string-plucking score by Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, tick-tocks swiftly.
But the atmosphere changes drastically with a moody solo by Jonathan Mangosing, and once more when the strings are churned up in an electro remix.
Although the talented Caniparoli has hits such as “Ibsen’s House” and “Lambarena” under his belt, “Swipe” is bi-polar, swinging from serious to savvy, struggling for a voice.
On opening night Friday, Robin Cornwell and Terez Dean performed “Swipe” with a predatory gaze, as if trying to
implant a narrative that isn’t there. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart, by contrast, let the dance speak for itself, utilizing her exceptional musicality, as did John Speed Orr, who leapt with inspired athleticism.
Ma Cong’s world premiere of “Through” opens with a similarly throbbing rhythm and chugs along like a train, the pace never furious but constant. There is a tranquil lyricism to Cong’s choreography, including eloquent, sweeping lifts. Cong cites Balanchine as an inspiration, as apparent here as it is in “Swipe.”
A tripartite iceberg fills the stage in “Symphony of Psalms.” The frosty sheets of sculpted fabric could be clouds, but the dancers are dressed in icy blue-and-white costumes, and the work itself is somewhat chilly.
“Psalms,” a late work by Smuin, is set to a Stravinsky score incorporating sacred choral elements, imbuing a severe solemnity. Seven couples move in a staid trance, as if they have reluctantly resigned themselves to an irreversible and tragic fate.
Knotty, wrapped and twisted lifts, pairs of bodies accomplishing implausible, acrobatic feats, are choreographic highlights of “Psalms,” while the rest is mostly Balanchine vernacular, incorporating motifs in both “Swipe” and “Through.”
Today’s ballet world is saturated with post-Balanchine choreography, and while the 20th century could not ignore his influence, perhaps the 21st should, or at least stop depending on it.
Smuin Ballet is not alone. This program could have been a bill by the San Francisco Ballet, which has a heavily post-Balanchine repertoire. While Balanchine seduced audiences with his purist approach — athleticism, musicality and few distractions such as stories — Balanchine derivatives often fail to launch the art into new territory.
Rare exceptions are works by William Forsythe, which require Olympian dexterity and musicality that made Balanchine look like a cakewalk (but that was in the 1980s and 1990s, and he has moved on artistically).
Even though Smuin’s spring program doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it includes demanding works performed by some exceptional dancers who deserve to be seen.
Smuin Ballet spring season
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Novellus Theater, 700 Howard St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today through Friday
Tickets: $25 to $62
Contact: (415) 912-1899, www.smuinballet.org
Note: Performances also are in Walnut Creek and Mountain View through May 27