Terez Dean perches atop the legs of dancer Eduardo Permuy in Jirí Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land

Entertaining, challenging Smuin Ballet

The Smuin Ballet opened its 20th anniversary season doing what it does best: presenting entertaining, challenging dance. Onstage at the Palace of Fine Arts in The City, “XXtremes” is a triple bill packed with verve and reverence.

A charmer since its debut in 2011, Amy Seiwert’s “Dear Miss Cline” — a suite choreographed to Patsy Cline songs — is set to be a canonical work for the troupe.

Perky and pert when love is gleeful, pouty and pining when romance wanes, “Miss Cline” has playful but challenging partnering, though the dancers make it appear effortless: men and women tumble, somersault and swing with acrobatic aplomb.

Not seen on the West Coast in nearly 20 years, “Return to a Strange Land” is a rare glimpse into the early career of one of the most influential choreographers of the past half-century. Choreographed by Jirí Kylián, “Strange Land” is a memorial to Kylián’s mentor John Cranko, whose death at 45 in 1973 devastated the dance world.

The plaintive music, four Leo Janácek piano sonatas, sounds like despondent Chopin and imbues the six-dancer piece with a somber, requiem-like air.

Overall the choreography is staid, peppered with the pendulum-swing lifts that Kylián loves. Two women are the primary forces, with four men largely used like Atlas-like anchors in supporting statuesque poses.

In Saturday’s matinee, Terez Dean was fetching, dancing with palpable emotional presence — not an easy feat in an abstract ballet.

The only downside is that “Strange Land,” first performed in 1975, feels dated, in that Kylián, former artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater, turned that company into a pioneering, avant-garde phenomenon.

Never known for shy works, Michael Smuin’s “Carmina Burana” is as wild as Carl Orff’s rambunctious score.

Opening with “Oh Fortuna” — a familiar segment from the secular cantata used broadly in commercials and films — “Carmina Burana” starts with a sacrificial motif: a woman in the fetal position surrounded by male dancers who lie on the ground, propping her up with their feet.

There is a primal, “Rite of Spring”-ish feel to “Carmina Burana.” The score’s percussive thrust drives the choreography into territory as somber and ritualistic as it is playful and resplendent.

If George Balanchine and Rudolf Nureyev had a choreographic lovechild, it would be manifest in the energetic male solo “Tanz.” Danced by Christian Squires with panache, the solo boasts all flexed hands and furiously quick, mazurka-like footwork.

As serious as “Carmina” can be, it also is a robust, slyly entertaining work sprinkled with Bob Fosse-like slinking. There aren’t many ballet choreographers with a Tony Award, and “Carmina Burana” proves exactly why the late Smuin got one.

REVIEW

Smuin Ballet

Where: Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

Tickets: $25 to $72

Contact: (415) 912-1899, www.smuinballet.org

Note: The program repeats in March in Walnut Creek and Mountain View.

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