The opening work of the Smuin Ballet’s triple bill at the Joyce Theater on Monday provides evidence of one of the most singular choreographic minds working in ballet today. Trey McIntyre’s “Oh, Inverted World” — set to songs by the Shins — is a pop ballet, reminiscent of some of the best pop ballets of Twyla Tharp. Its subject, though, is one that I don’t remember Ms. Tharp tackling: the perplexity of young individuals amid the group.
It’s an odd, engaging, fresh piece; I find it irresistible. While the Smuin dancers are excellent throughout this bill, they’re at their finest here. The dancers wear simple sportswear; the men are bare chested, and the women wear soft shoes (no point work). “Oh, Inverted World” keeps up a nonstop tension between the language of classical ballet, with its grace and impetus, and a far more idiosyncratic vocabulary that suggests the conflicting impulses of youth. The tics of heads, shoulders, elbows, torsos, knees often recall the Tharpian dance language of yesteryear, but they’re far from dated; they look utterly as if they belong to these people right now.
A lesser choreographer might use the ballet idiom to indicate the conformism from which these eight young characters keep breaking away. Mr. McIntyre is much subtler than that.
Instead, he uses ballet to give these characters release and charm. Even in fleeting moments, the look of academic steps here appears artless, unorthodox, spontaneous. But these steps are interwoven with group pressure on the one hand and personal confusion on the other. These eight people are, up to a point, heterosexual — the men lift and support the women, with occasional moments of canoodling and nuzzling — but nobody has found Mr. Right or Ms. Right here; they’re still finding themselves.
In a final solo, or series of solos, John Speed Orr expresses all this in a marvelous nexus. Again and again, he comes to a pause, holding his hands near his face in mimelike gestures — except that his gestures don’t communicate; they serve only to reveal his need to shut himself off in private space. Others come and go; he stands there; then he dances again. The blend of fragmented impulsiveness and larger expansiveness is so thorough that you never know where it’s going. He’s like a young person you know; and in these dances it’s as if you’re in his head. The solo is among the finest made by anyone in years.
Jane Rehm also has several solos passages, equally striking. Curiously, she’s less vulnerable than he is; she’s adventurous, purposeful, happier. But, like everyone here, she’s dealing with the same peculiar vortex of formal and informal, private and social. I reviewed this work after seeing its world premiere in 2010 in San Francisco, where the Smuin company is based; the ballet looks even better now.
Michael Smuin, the choreographer who gave this company his name, died in 2007, just months before the company’s most recent season in New York. We may assume the company is still in transition. This program’s centerpiece, the hammy “Medea” (1977), is by Smuin himself. The music is the same “Medea Suite” by Samuel Barber that Martha Graham used for her classic Medea dance, “Cave of the Heart” (1946), but Smuin’s choreography and the Joyce sound system make it hard to recognize.
The curtain rises on Medea, shrouded in a purple cloak that is literally smoking. When she parts it, we see through the smoke that she is wearing red body tights and point shoes. Much of Medea’s choreography is about menacing, don’t-mess-with-me poses. I don’t recall ever seeing a dramatization of “Medea” in which the heroine is less internalized. She doesn’t suffer; she just avenges.
Alas, I did not read the program note beforehand. For half the action I therefore inferred that the two young men who did exuberantly sporty things with Jason — all three wearing gilded dance belts and heroically flaunting their buttocks at us — must be adults: presumably two of Jason’s co-Argonauts, whom Medea befriended as she was cultivating their leader. Eventually it dawned on me that these were the offspring of her marriage to Jason.
Smuin kept taking this Greek myth in new directions. Creusa, Medea’s rival, is usually an innocent, but the expression “no better than she ought to be” was coined for the flirtatious way she wiggled her hips and caressingly opened one thigh to address Jason. And Medea’s two sons helped their Mom: they trapped Creusa in a rope, and then stood by loyally while Mom strangled the little minx. They did not guess what awaited them; but yes — after an extended bout of necrophiliac choreography between Jason and Creusa’s corpse — the ballet ended with Medea once more parting her purple cloak, to reveal her sons, now corpses too.
The program ends with the bright, breezy “Soon These Two Worlds” (2009), by Amy Seiwert, who has been the company’s choreographer in residence since 2008. Its music, for strings and drums, is selected from the Nonesuch recording “Pieces of Africa,” commissioned for and performed by the Kronos Quartet. Curiously the sound is only intermittently African; the melodic lines and pizzicato meters often suggest European folk material.
And much of the time we might be watching one of those lyrical ballets in which attractive young dancers respond prettily to the strains of Dvorak or Janacek. If the “two worlds” of the title refer to African and American ballet cultures, then this piece suggests cultural imperialism by America — there’s little Africa onstage.
Ms. Seiwert gives us both lone couples and a group of 12; everyone is heterosexual, the women on point. The sunny blitheness of the dance makes it an effective closer. But despite moments of intimacy and upper-body gestures from outside the ballet lexicon, the whole climate onstage is highly conformist.
These Smuin dancers are so skilled and attractive that I congratulate the troupe and wish it well for its future. But only Mr. McIntyre’s choreography here belongs to the present day, let alone the future.