New works light up Smuin Ballet’s ‘Unlaced’ 

click to enlarge Smuin Ballet dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Erica Felsch appear in Adam Hougland's premiere “Ask Me.” - COURTESY CHRIS HARDY
  • COURTESY CHRIS HARDY
  • Smuin Ballet dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Erica Felsch appear in Adam Hougland's premiere “Ask Me.”
Smuin Ballet is closing its 21st season with a program aptly titled “Unlaced” Dance Series.

Onstage this week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in The City, its four pieces explore themes of passion, love and letting loose. While the troupe’s late founder Michael Smuin’s balcony duet from his 1976 “Romeo and Juliet” and an excerpt from his “Hearts Suite” from 1986 are on the program, more recent creations by Helen Pickett and Adam Hougland were better showcases for the dancers’ infectious charm and savvy style at Friday’s opening performance.

Pickett’s “Petal,” a dance set to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Montgomery Newman, gives the dancers an opportunity to display their technical virtuosity as well as encourages them to go beyond their classical training.

Made in 2008, the piece entered the company’s repertoire in 2013, and Friday’s cast of eight dancers appeared to be friends enjoying the spotlight and having fun together; the women wore bright yellow leotards that looked like swimsuits, the men were without shirts in blue pants. Yellow lighting at the beginning bathed the stage in a warm glow.

Jo-Ann Sundermeier was stunning in a brief but complicated turning phrase, and Dustin James captivated in his solo, which took place as the light changed to tangerine. As he luxuriated in his dancing, his solo seemed to trigger a shift in atmosphere; this notion of actions and reactions continued to reverberate throughout Pickett’s choreography.

Hougland’s “Ask Me,” a world premiere, contrasted with Pickett’s sunny landscape.

Set to music by Joan as Police Woman (Joan Wasser), Hougland’s work is darker, smoke-filled and funky. The women wore boots and sneakers instead of pointe shoes, and cast members (five men, five women) were dressed as if they were in a nightclub.

Ben Needham-Wood’s opening solo transformed the ballet dancer into a b-boy, and his cool mastery of Hougland’s choreography was fantastic. When he joined Erica Felsch for a duet, she unlaced her boots and danced in her socks.

If Pickett’s work examines the intricacies of ballet vocabulary, Hougland’s piece is more carefree. Terez Dean grooved and sauntered with aplomb, and unison sections revealed each performer’s distinct style.

A touch of vulnerability in the closing solo of Hougland’s dance made me want to see more creations by this choreographer for the Louisville and Cincinnati ballets. “Ask Me” eloquently taps into both the jouissance and loneliness of urban settings.

REVIEW

Smuin Ballet

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 701 Mission St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. May 14-15, 2 and 8 p.m. May 16, 2 p.m. May 17

Tickets: $24 to $67

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

Note: Performances continue May 21-24 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts and May 29-30 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

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Kate Mattingly

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