It was a first for Smuin Ballet. Despite dozens of opportunities to tart up dances with come-hither looks and tough-guy poses, none of the dancers took the bait Saturday at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek in the company's spring season program, "XXTREMES."

I admit I was surprised. I remembered Michael Smuin's "Carmina Burana," performed suggestively to the Carl Orff score, and expected that the program would repeat the pattern of recent years, where new work that steered clear of the tawdry would get rounded out by a sentimental Smuin dance or one stuffed with a kind of corny sleaze.

Keith SutterSmuin Ballet dancers Terez Dean and Eduardo Permuy in JirÌ Kyliánís Return to a Strange Land.
Keith Sutter Smuin Ballet dancers Terez Dean and Eduardo Permuy in JirÌ Kyliánís Return to a Strange Land. ( Keith Sutter )

Instead, the company of 16 danced the afternoon away with wit, passion and real, rather than simulated, sexiness. Performing three works with strong structural similarities yet compelling differences and tackling them with confident artistry, the troupe had no problem turning its backs on adolescent antics.

Finally, Smuin Ballet seems to have grown up.

Even "Carmina Burana" revealed artistic logic in being last in the lineup —— it combined the serial structure of "Dear Miss Cline," Amy Seiwert's sassy episodic work that opened the program, with some of the existential heft of the 1975 dance "Return to a Strange Land," choreographed by Jiri Kylian and first performed by the Smuin Ballet last fall.

"Burana," 19 of Orff's 24 songs in the cycle, is Smuin's response to richly rhythmic vocal music largely sung in Latin and dating from the Middle Ages that is parodic, celebratory, profane, bawdy and yearning. It offers a vision of the world, warts and all, and the dancers, in Sandra Woodall's elegant two-toned costumes, let the movement speak for itself, especially Christian Squires, who tore up the stage up in his Russian-inflected solo "Tanz" without an ounce of flirtation.

"Dear Miss Cline," danced to the country songs of Patsy Cline, is a loving cartoon from the '50s that veers from starched to sultry and reinforces that Seiwert is an inventive, musical choreographic talent. But on second viewing, the work seems to celebrate an almost shrill, if wry, domination by the women over the men, whose primary job is to haul the pretty partners around on pedestals of comic admiration.

While the dancing unfolds in 10 songs, and offers plenty of admirable sweetness and fun, what's missing is a hint of the toll such pert surfaces took on those Eisenhower gals.

"Return to a Strange Land" is unambiguous about where it stands and the toll that death, loss and transfiguration take. It was exactly right to place it at the center of the program, as the artistic fulcrum. Set to the melancholic Sonata No. 1 by Leos Janacek, it is Kylian's lament for his mentor, John Cranko, who died suddenly in 1973. This is a work of expected Kylian depth and seamless craft that unfolds like beautifully crafted poetry.

Terez Dean is the central female in Part 1, echoing the central role women had in the other two works. But the men engage her like angels whose support has primary moral and spiritual importance, not like department-store armature. Later, we see Jo-Ann Sundermeier beautifully fold and unfold with Joshua Reynolds and Jonathan Dummar, the three entwining in demanding, natural and human patterns that carve layers of meaning into space.

It is just such rigor that made "Strange Land" the most physically challenging of the three works. It is also what opened up welcome new territory for Smuin Ballet.

Contact Ann Murphy at writingdance@aol.com.

if you go
What: Smuin Ballet presents Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land," Seiwert's "Dear Miss Cline" and Smuin's "Carmina Burana"
When and where: March 19-23, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts; March 28-29, Carmel's Sunset Center
Tickets: $52-$70; 650-903-6000 for Mountain View date, 831-620-2048 for Carmel date; www.smuinballet.org