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Ballet meets The Shins in ‘Oh, Inverted World’

Smuin dancers Benjamin Behrends, Erin Yarbrough Stewart and Matthew Linzer in Trey McIntyre's "Oh, Inverted World." (Courtesy of David Allen)

Last Friday evening, I settled into my seat at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco for Smuin Ballet’s fall season. The evening had opened with Michael Smuin’s more classically rooted “Brahms-Haydn Variations,” but the program quickly left behind the world of chiffon dresses and tiaras for The Shins. Named after the band’s 2001 debut album, Smuin Ballet’s “Oh, Inverted World” was a world premiere by choreographer Trey McIntyre.

Normally, the endless opportunity for cliché would make me cringe, but McIntyre has proven time and again that he can create innovative work set to any music. This summer, McIntyre followed Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” with Queen at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. His company performed “Wild Sweet Love,” choreographed to a medley that also featured the The Partridge Family, Lou Reed and Roberta Flack. McIntyre is as comfortable with Beethoven as he is with Beck and The Beatles, or in this case, The Shins.

The second of three pieces on the night’s program, “Oh, Inverted World” was comprised of eight dance vignettes that corresponded to tracks on the album. No pointe shoes were allowed in this ballet, and though it could boast its share of technical feats, the choreography shied away from bravura. The dancers, simply dressed in bright shorts or in quirky two-piece ensembles and socks, shuffled on and off stage in a winding pattern, each resting a hand on another’s shoulder.

The synchronized clump finally left one man in its wake, to begin a series of solos, duets and small groups that spilled one into the next. The ballet’s unusual soundtrack accompanied McIntyre’s dramatic and aesthetic insight and his attention to detail. Each dancer’s nuanced movement vocabulary kept the audience engaged and curious, always one step away from understanding the choice of song paired with each section.

The program ended with Smuin’s even less conventional “Bluegrass/Slyde.” The ballet – which revolved around three spinning poles – is equal parts cabaret, musical and circus, a pinch of county fair and dripping with sass. As the dancers spun, bodies parallel to the floor, on pointe with leg extended outward or counterbalancing another dancer, they lent a new, virtuosic and much less vulgar meaning to pole-dancing.

In every permutation of ballet, emulating or departing from tradition, the dancers felt at home. The Smuin Ballet Company, whose technical level and artistry often fall short of larger and more prestigious institutions like San Francisco Ballet, distinguished itself with energetic, playful and accessible choreography. The program is worth a trip when it comes to Mountain View, Walnut Creek and Carmel in February 2011, even if you’re not a bunhead yourself.

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