Smuin Ballet: Making Ballet Fun Again 

The local company's latest show updates the form for the 21st century.

Ballet has an image problem. Virtually unchanged for 200 years, it can seem stuffy, arcane, and old-fashioned. But it doesn't have to — and San Francisco's Smuin Ballet is helping to bring ballet out of the 18th century with fresh ideas, eclectic music, and a passion for entertaining the audience.

"People think ballet and they go, 'Oh, tutus and pointe shoes,'" said Celia Fushille, the company's artistic and executive director. "That's certainly our foundation, but we take it to a whole new level. We have supremely talented dancers, and what we present is fun and innovative and super creative. It's an exciting evening of dance. People always leave on such a high."

With its winter show, coming to the Lesher Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday, February 4-5, the Smuin Ballet takes a solid leap into the future of ballet with Oh, Inverted World, created for the company by sought-after young choreographer Trey McIntyre. Set to the Shins' melodic indie-pop, Oh, Inverted World is lively, colorful, dynamic, athletic — and devoid of pointe shoes. "It is very full-body, and not in the structure of classical ballet," Fushille said.

Principal dancer Susan Roemer agreed: "You get to watch people just dancing as hard as they can and really enjoying it." Contemporary in feel but technically demanding, the piece hits a genre-spanning sweet spot between intensity, intelligence, and sheer delight.

Fushille designs Smuin shows to be well rounded, and this one starts with the lyrical Brahms/Haydn Variations, created by the company's late founder, Michael Smuin. Roemer described Variations as "classical ballet, short little vignettes — a refreshing palette cleanser" that warms the dancers up for the McIntyre piece to follow, and at the same time prepares the audience's eye for the riffs on ballet technique that make it exciting to watch.

Bluegrass/Slyde, another Smuin-choreographed piece, closes the show. Dancing to tunes by banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer, the performers move around and through poles attached to a metal frame — a set that resembles a jungle gym, Fushille said. Percussive and athletic, "it's sculpture in motion." That's hardly the typical description of a ballet performance, but it's just how the members of Smuin Ballet want their shows to be.

"Ultimately our goal is to put on a fantastic performance that people enjoy, period," Roemer said. "That's why we offer what we do. You're going to come see a wonderful show, and you'll leave smiling." Smuin Ballet performs Friday, February 4, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, February 5, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., at the Lesher Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek). $49-$59. 925-943-7469 or LesherArtsCenter.org

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