The publicity photo advertising Smuin Ballet’s “Untamed” Dance Series, which opened Friday at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, says it all. A ballerina in a snowy-white costume, hair tucked in a bun, poses in a technically precise arabesque en pointe, while her shadow has morphed into a wilder thing, head thrown back in abandon, unbound hair flying, hands jazzed out. This dichotomy perfectly represents Smuin Ballet, a company Dance Magazine has called “one of this country’s most entertaining, original ballet troupes.” Artistic and executive director Celia Fushille continues to adhere to principles of late founder Michael Smuin—classical-based contemporary with a dash of Broadway—and does so for the company’s 21st season opener, to great effect.

<i>Serenade for Strings</i> © Keith Sutter
Serenade for Strings
© Keith Sutter
The night’s program commenced with the company premiere of Serenade for Strings, choreographed in 2013 by Garrett Ammon, artistic director of Denver-based Wonderbound. One thinks immediately of Balanchine’s iconic, almost sacred ballet Serenade, also set to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for strings. Ammon, who in 2009 was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 To Watch,” has an intrepid choreographic style that is adventurous, yet firmly rooted in classicism. Serenade for Strings is lively, playful, and within moments of watching, any thoughts of comparison I’d harbored were quickly dispelled. Females were clad in slippers, not pointe shoes. Flowing, generous movements and ballet lines were interspersed with quick moves, à la Jorma Elo: here a quirky flex of the wrists, the ankles, there a jazz-infused shimmy of the head. Grins abounded. The costumes, designed by Rachael Kras, highlighted the piece’s lighthearted nature, with the women sporting mint-green bodices and short skirts. The men, in trousers and untucked button-downs, perpetuated the playfulness by periodically sliding, supine, beneath their female partners, pausing as if to peek under those short skirts, drawing chuckles from the audience.

Newcomer Sarah Nyfield delivered an eye-catching performance, with strong classical technique, articulated movements, and wonderful extensions. Fellow newcomers Robert Morse, and Dustin James also displayed fine technique and strong partnering skills. Veterans Joshua Reynolds, Erica Felsch and Terez Dean were recognizable powerhouse dancers throughout. The piece’s ensemble effort, falling short of perfect synchronicity in the opening sixty seconds, ultimately delivered.

<i>Objets of Curiosity</i> © Keith Sutter
Objets of Curiosity
© Keith Sutter
Choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert’s 2007 Objects of Curiosity was the night’s second piece. This is an intelligent, classical-meets-contemporary examination of the tensions between desire and restraint, and an exploration of shape and form. Music was a collaboration between Philip Glass, West African Griot and kora (traditional African harp) master Foday Musa Suso. In the opening sequence, a spotlight illuminated, one at a time, four male dancers (Weston Krukow, Eduardo Permuy, Ben Needham-Wood and Jonathan Powell) who struck adagio-like poses that showcased their strong bodies and technique. Costumes, designed by Cassandra Carpenter, were dandelion-yellow, short unitards threaded with slashes of red and cream, with added skirts for the women. They served the piece well, as did the brown-gold backdrop panel that cleverly seemed to change textures as the lighting changed. (Designed by Matthew Antaky, adaptation by Michael Oesch.) The ballet’s only flaw came during transitions from one movement to the next, when dulcet tones or low-level sound recordings were followed by overloud ones, or a too-long silence, which felt more awkward than artistic.
<i>Frankie and Johnny</i> © Keith Sutter
Frankie and Johnny
© Keith Sutter

Michael Smuin’s 1996 Frankie and Johnny finished the evening, a Latin-flavored, Mambo-infused “he done me wrong” narrative, with bold costumes (designed by Sandra Woodall), bold music, and high energy from all the dancers. Erin Yarbrough and Eduardo Permuy were sizzling as Frankie and Johnny, particularly in Scene III. A quick change of scenery that the dancers themselves moved into place yielded an impressive saloon set (designed by Douglas Schmidt) for the scene. The “denizens of the saloon” entertained, as did their male partners. Jonathan Powell earned the most laughs of the night with his adorably funny, half-man, half-woman “couple’s” tango. Jo-Ann Sundermeier’s “Cat” was a knockout, wickedly sensuous, employing her long legs and beautiful extensions to maximum effect. A twist of sorts at the end turns tragedy into celebration, and the last few minutes of the ballet were pure Broadway fun, with reprises from all the dancers. The music pulsed, glitter plummeted from up above, and it was pure Michael Smuin, with his love of showy theatricality and crowd-pleasing entertainment. A great way to end the night, and a great show to commence the season.