Choreographer Joanie Smith specializes in off-kilter humor, but she contrasts her sardonic wit with true beauty and a keen sense of drama. Shapiro & Smith Dance’s “The Ophelias,” which premiered at the Cowles Center on Thursday night, is a particularly fine example of Smith’s fondness for shining a light into darkness — and celebrating the oddities that emerge from its shadows.

Performed by Laura Selle Virtucio with guest artists Judith Howard and Erin Thompson, the work draws inspiration from a leading female role in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” But it’s not a character study per se — instead Smith delves into moods, combining fleeting moments of delicacy with more defiant stances or glimpses of madness. Whether the terrifically talented trio is gliding around on stools with wheels or flipping up their ample hoop skirts (which seem to have lives of their own thanks to Carol Salmon’s clever costume design), they re-imagine the interior world of a centuries-old literary icon through the sharply focused lens of women’s wisdom.

“Jack,” a new duet by Smith for Scott Mettile and James Sewell Ballet member Nic Lincoln, takes a similarly wry approach. “Jack” targets the familiar guys found in many a nursery rhyme (from “Jack Sprat” to “Jack and Jill” and beyond). Narrator and text creator Brian Sostek of Sossy Mechanics delves into potential outcomes for these stories that are not so cheery (and even downright Edward Gorey-esque), with hilarious results. Mettile and Lincoln are a darn good team, merging comic sensibility with playful animosity plus a hint of vaudevillian style.

The program also includes two repertory works. “A Moment Before” (a 2000 work choreographed by Smith with Danial Shapiro) is a generous celebration of movement freedom set to a cascading composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Andrew Lester, Megan McClellan, Kari Mosel, Lincoln, Mettille and Virtucio fully embody the unbridled spirit within the music.

“Burning Air” (2011) evokes the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 through dance and poetic text by Obie Award-winning performer/playwright David Greenspan. As one of Smith’s most impressive works, it captures all of the fearsomeness of a catastrophe as well as the possibility for renewal. Mosel in a central role harnesses a range of vivid emotional responses from her core and then releases them into the space around her with the persistent force of a fiery blaze.


Caroline Palmer writes about dance.