When Smuin Ballet opened its doors on its "XX Anniversary" season, the welcome address was not delivered by founding member and current artistic director Celia Fushille but instead by a beautifully attired representative of the San Francisco Giants in a speech closer to a rousing pregame pep talk than a preamble to an evening of ballet. If this sounds good to you, Smuin Ballet's XXtremes program at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater October 4-12 may be a show you would enjoy. Certainly, at nearly one hundred fifty minutes long, it is an enthusiastic display of athleticism by a company celebrating its twentieth season since it was founded by Michael Smuin to "infuse ballet with the rhythm, speed, and syncopation of American pop culture."
The program opens with Amy Seiwert's 2011 Dear Miss Cline, comprised of ten Patsy Cline numbers danced by eleven spirited dancers in khakis and splashes of red. The dances are extremely literal. "Walkin' After Midnight" features dancers pointedly strolling about the stage. "Tra le la le la Triangle," an unrepentant song about a love triangle, presents Erin Yarbrough partnered by two men, swinging her leg like a bell to hit every strike of the triangle in the score. "Stop the World and Let Me Off" has Nicole Haskins spinning wildly and later circled in by a posy ring of dancers. It's like watching white suburban high-schoolers -- the well-dressed ones who imagined their petty dramas were the center of the universe. It's not clear what the ambitions of a piece like this are, though it's no more offensive than watching sitcoms for the pretty people and banal narratives they contain. That's entertainment.
Entertainment also seems to be at the root of Smuin's own 1997 Carmina Burana, set to the Orff score that launched a million action movie soundtracks. Melodramatically lit by Michael Oesch after Sara Linnie Slocum, the piece showed the whole company in fine classical form within a structure that alternated between the pseudoreligious ritual of "O Fortuna" to the strangely wry "Ecce gratum," which showed Erica Felsh prancing like an animated Christmas ornament around Eduardo Permuy, to the typical boy-girl story of "Stetit puella," executed with charm by Yarbrough and Ben Needham-Wood. Christian Squires impressed as a faintly Hungarian-accented faun frolicking as if alone in a bathhouse in "Tanz," and Jo-Ann Sundermeier displayed lovely, pure extensions in "Chume, chum geselle min," but overall the piece is a bombastic miscellany that doesn't cohere.
The truly ambitious move of the evening was the staging of Jiri Kylian's subtle and elegiac Return to a Strange Land, a work from 1975 originally created to mourn the sudden death at 45 of choreographer John Cranko. The piece is minimal, duets and trios in leotards and tights against a solid wash of color, blue or brown. Unfortunately, though valiantly attempted, the company lacks the crispness of line, the fluidity, and the phrasing to elucidate the diamond cut precision of Kylian's sculpted movement, which only shone through in static poses, such as when Terez Dean clung forlornly to Permuy's extended legs, or when, at the close of the piece, Jane Rehm, Joshua Reynolds, and Jonathan Dummar formed a suspended pile of bodies, simultaneously falling to the ground and lifting up to the sky.