As it always does when it makes its annual summertime visit to the Joyce Theater, the San Francisco Bay Area–based Smuin Ballet is presenting an exhilarating evening of smartly crafted, highly entertaining dances performed with polished gusto.
The centerpiece of its program is a spectacular rendition of "Medea," a chillingly Martha Graham–like, expressionistic ballet based on the Greek tragedy about a mother who takes revenge on her betraying husband by murdering their two sons. Choreographed in 1977 by the troupe's founder, Michael Smuin, the work is set to a spine-tingling Samuel Barber score. Built of breathtaking overhead lifts and strong, unadorned gestures that convey the drama with piercing starkness, the work is well-suited to the company, as its solidly trained ballet technicians, unlike many contemporary ballet dancers, aren't afraid to embrace over-the-top emotionality.
Book-ending the electrifying "Medea" are two pure movement pieces: "Oh, Inverted World," choreographed by Trey McIntyre, the most consistently interesting ballet dance-maker working today, and "Soon These Two Worlds," created by Amy Seiwert.
Not one of his finest works, McIntyre's jaunty ensemble piece is set to an appealing collection of wittily retro pop-rock songs by the indie band the Shins. Against the bouncy, youthful feel of its toe-tapping score the choreography pits sharp footwork, slicing arm actions, and stiffly-held-in-place torso shapes, performed with stylized deliberateness. The contrast between the precisely executed, razor-edged movements and the carefree music creates the kind of dynamic that makes even McIntyre's lesser pieces engagingly provocative. All of the dancers negotiate the work's oppositional qualities with finesse, particularly the boyish John Speed Orr, who imbues solo passages with a squeaky clean technique and rich psychological intensity.
Seiwert's piece is an enigma. Movement-wise it appears to be a generic contemporary ballet, well-constructed out of lively, athletic, ballet-based dancing that mimics (sometimes a bit too strictly) the rhythms of its pulsating score. The choreography is marred only by the annoying repetition of one thematic gesture, an undulating motion made by arms held in a circle in front of the body. Suggestive of African dance, that gesture is the only link between the choreography and the music, four selections from "Pieces of Africa." The titles of the musical selections are African words and correspond to the titles of the ballet's four parts. While the first three sections of the dance are relatively undistinguishable, by the fourth we've clearly moved into the dream-ballet sequence from the film musical "Oklahoma!" The resemblance is undeniable: the blue-sky backdrop, the preparation of the wedding couple, the country-dancing ensemble patterns, the "Agnes de Mille" lift, and the American hoedown music. Is this what Seiwert means by the "two worlds" in her ballet's title?
Yet what was costume designer Christine Darch thinking? While the women look okay in their flowing dresses, the men look ridiculous in wide-striped tights that are cut off mid-calf and extend all the way up to just below the nipples. Oddities aside, Seiwert's ballet still makes for an enjoyable performance.
Presented by Smuin Ballet, in association with the Joyce Theater Foundation, at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., NYC. Aug. 13–18. Mon. and Tue., 7:30 p.m.; Wed., 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thu. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m. (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org.