Last time he brought his New York-based company to town, Darion Smith was a neoclassical choreographer: His balletic idiom centered on pas de deux with female dancers en pointe.
Five years later, the Santa Barbara native is reinventing his oeuvre. Last Friday at Center Stage Theater, Smith presented Janusphere-Evolves, a program of three works featuring large-scale props, digital film projection, spoken word — and nary a pointe shoe in sight.
The program opened with “KinderPlatz,” a work for six centering on a dome-shaped jungle gym that the dancers clambered over, hung from, crawled inside, and pushed across the floor. Despite the implication of child’s play, the tone was serious — even severe — a feeling reinforced by a driving electronic score and dizzying video clips by Aleksandar Cosic that seemed to transport the viewer through a series of portals, past spinning cogs, and down a long, eerily shifting corridor.
As part of his artistic evolution, Smith is finding innovative ways to employ his classically trained company members. “KinderPlatz” called for lots of sock-footed sliding, complex floor work, and tricky partnering; at one point, So Young An walked on air, resting her hands squarely on the heads of her two male supporters.
In his quartet “Core,” So Young An and Smith appeared alongside Matt Van and Grace Song. Dressed in pale blue unitards and ballet slippers, the four explored the potentials of weight sharing to a soundtrack of mechanical buzzes and clicks.
But it was in “A Dancer’s Life,” the program’s closing number, where Smith made the greatest departure from his classical roots, presenting nine barefoot performers who entered one by one, complaining of various dancer ailments: swollen feet, gnawing hunger, parental pressure. At the prompting of a booming, synthesized male voice, they dropped obediently into a series of pliés. Then, spurred to action by the galloping strains of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” they mimicked the tension and competition of a dance audition: tossing off their flashiest moves and shoving each other aside for a chance at the spotlight.
In contrast with the earnest tone of the earlier works, “A Dancer’s Life” danced into true comic territory — until eight of the dancers ganged up against one, appearing ready to tear her limb from limb. But Smith has honed the art of transformation; with a little tweak, desperate clawing became sexy nightclub thrashing.