A subtle rebranding has taken place at San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet, with the company’s moniker both shrinking, to simply “Smuin”, and expanding, to incorporate “Contemporary American” within its name. And in proper form, the season’s opening program, Dance Series 01, performed Saturday at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, was indeed contemporary and American-infused ballet. Elegant, fresh and eclectic, it was also distinctively Smuin.

Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in <i>Indigo</i> © Chris Hardy

Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in Indigo
© Chris Hardy

Saturday afternoon’s performance opened with a West Coast première of Stanton Welch’s 1999 neoclassical Indigo. Welch, internationally acclaimed choreographer as well as artistic director of the Houston Ballet, uses two of Vivaldi’s Cello Concertos (in B-minor and G-minor respectively) to create a ballet for four couples who move together, part, return in different pairings and reconcile, an abstract exploration of relationships and love. Ben Needham-Wood, Dustin James, Robert Kretz and Mengjun Chen smoothly partnered Erin Yarbrough-Powell, Erica Chipp, Nicole Haskins and Tessa Barbour. It’s fast-moving fare, technically rigorous, that nonetheless leaves room for playfulness amid the controlled elegance: a flirtatious hip sashay, a quirked arm, head bobbles (that became less effective after the tenth time). Costumes for the women, eye-catching blue chiffon split skirts and tops, showcased splendidly toned midriffs and beautiful lines. Erica Chipp was particularly polished and fluid in her movements; Nicole Haskins, too, offered a strong solo and, later, a series of fouettés turns that were clean, precise. Among the men, Robert Kretz was a standout, sure-footed and adept in his tour jetés, turns and solo work.

Stabat Mater, the program’s second ballet, was choreographed by founder Michael Smuin in 2001, his tender, personalized response to the pathos and trauma of the 9/11 events. Antonin Dvorák’s eponymous, choral-orchestral arrangement is the perfect music. Smuin, who died in 2007, shared that, “when I found myself playing the Dvorák “Stabat Mater” over and over, I realized that I had found my response to all the death and pain of those terrible days.” Ann Beck’s costumes, particularly the women’s beautiful chiffon skirts – red, blue, orange, with matching bodices – well suited the ballet, as did lighting design and adaptation, by Sara Linnie Slocum and Michael Oesch respectively, suffusing the ballet with a dreamy, haunted mood. All the elements here seemed to come together and meld perfectly, and the company artists responded in kind. Once again, Erica Chipp, as the female lead, gave a powerful standout performance, rich with gravitas and restrained emotion, without ever holding back physically. In one movement, Chipp leapt into fellow lead Robert Kretz’s arms and he tossed her to other men waiting to catch her. Later, four men lifted her high and she launched herself backward, airborne, with Kretz there to catch her… Not moves to be executed halfheartedly. Kretz, a former dancer with the Boston Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance, is sublime, directing energy and refined technique into his performances, filling the stage with his presence. Stabat Mater, arguably one of Smuin’s most affecting ballets, continues to pay a beautiful tribute, in this fifteen-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

A world première by Garrett Ammon, artistic director of Denver-based Wonderbound, concluded the program. His ballet, Madness, Rack, and Honey, takes its title from a published collection of lectures by award-winning poet Mary Ruefle. It’s set to Mozart’s timeless Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra in E flat major, K.364, and herein lies the challenge.

Valerie Harmon (right) and the Smuin company in <i>Madness, Rack, and Honey</i> © Chris Hardy

Valerie Harmon (right) and the Smuin company in Madness, Rack, and Honey
© Chris Hardy

As a choreographer, Ammon likes to stir things up, question the unquestioned, blend tradition with adventurous new ideas. I loved his daring, reinterpreted Serenade For Strings, performed by Smuin in 2014. But the risks that paid off there didn’t yield such high results here. While Ammon’s choreography is still strong and inventive, the high jinks, slapstick humor and cap-snatching capers felt like too much of a clash against Mozart’s delicately graceful music. The dancers, however, rose to the challenge, taking on Ammon’s playful choreography, and making it artful, while wearing broad smiles. Valerie Harmon, in particular, seemed to find that artistic sweet spot with her insouciant grins, and long-limbed leaps. Running after the group of men in single-minded pursuit had the audience laughing at her antics. A strong second movement pas de deux between Erica Felsch and Benjamin Warner likewise warmed me further to the ballet’s eclectic style. When Felsch sidled over to Warner and hugged him, he swooned and slid from her embrace into a faint, with hilarious effect. Warner, like Harmon, seemed to find the best success at mixing art, grace and comedy.Artistic director Celia Fushille, who took over in 2007 after Michael Smuin’s death, continues to pave the way for innovation and qualitative performing as she leads Smuin into its 23rd season. Rebranding for the company has been a great way to remind people that they are, and have always been, a company of talented ballet dancers, who can do more, much more.