Smuin Ballets/SF

"The Christmas Ballet"

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

December 28, 2002
By Catherine Pawlick


Forget tutus and Nutcrackers; leave dancing snowflakes and waltzing flowers behind. Michael Smuin's The Christmas Ballet is a holiday celebration expressed in dance, and it's anything but classical. This troupe doesn’t just dance – they entertain in every sense of the word. Whether you're a romantic at heart or if you prefer sultry jazz, The Christmas Ballet has something for you.

Its two acts ("A Classical Christmas" and "A Cool Christmas") use musical selections that connote popular notions of Christmas and the holiday season. Bach and traditional choral hymns begin a more subdued first act, and Louis Armstrong and a peppy Felize Navidad carry us through a jazzier, racier second. Smuin has created an ode to the holiday season in a compilation of dances of varying emotive atmospheres and depths. It is hard to leave the performance without a smile on your face and some holiday cheer in your heart.

Act I offers twelve short dances on the more traditional end of things, and the curtain opens to everyone dressed in white unitards, complete with pointe shoes for the women. Smuin's choreography is a feast for the eye, and hard to pin down and dissect visually. And yet with so many fresh movements, we are reminded that this is pure Smuin.

Some of the choreography in the first three pieces – "Magnificat", "Zither" and "Largo" – echoes Balanchine in the pose-like tendus and classical positions; but barely have you caught an image than another one is created. There is a tender pas de deux full of arabesque balances and promenades performed by the exquisite Galina Alexandrova, her Russian training ever-present and ever-impressive. Rudolph Cassand offered some ethnic spice to "Riu, Riu Chiu" – along with some perfect double tours and high, clean cabrioles. And in "Hodie Christus Natus Est", Easton Smith partners Amy Seiwert in some amazing lifts. She is in the air more than she is on the ground, and Mr. Smith makes it all look quite effortless.

Six women walk back on stage slowly holding hands for a beautiful "Emmanuel." The choreography in this section is very simple. Walking, hands clasped, they make a series of lines and shapes, but paired with the music, it is effective.

Mozart’s "Gratias" was danced stunningly by Claudia Alfieri, Rodolphe Cassand and Lee Bell to the composer’s famous and somber choral music. The two men partner Ms. Alfieri expertly, supporting her in innumerable unique positions. This section prompts memories of the ribbon dance Smuin created in The Tempest's final act: Betsy Erickson, also in a white unitard, her legs interwoven with two male partners – and "Gratias" suddenly seems an ode to an era gone by, and the early beginnings of Smuin greatness.

Smuin has an uncanny ability to order program pieces in the most effective way, for these suggestions of classical purity move quickly to a more fun and casual Irish Wassail, the couples dancing Irish jigs in boots and heeled shoes. There follows an alternately lamenting / cheerful ode to the Jewish candle blessing, and a beautiful pas de deux between Mr. Smith and Celia Fushille-Burke. This partnership could not be smoother, and both parties are to be credited for their expression, strength and technique.

"Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy" with the young Robert Cisneros came next. No older than 14, but already displaying a technique much more polished than many twice his age, this young man completed perfect quadruple pirouettes repeatedly. Dancing among several female mother figures, Mr. Cisneros’ talents are a strangely metaphorical representation of the Christian savior. He would be a welcome addition to any cast, and his placement here was an excellent – if symbolic – choice.

And, it doesn't stop there.

Despite Act II's descriptor, some of the music therein is 'classical' insofar as it connotes popular notions of Christmas and the holiday season, but it is certainly heavier on the 'popular' than the traditional. Act II shifts everyone into full holiday cheer gear – in case you weren't there yet.

"Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are among the musical selections offered in this act. They're mixed in with fellow 'cool' tunes, such as the Act's opener, "Christmas in New Orleans" which begins with six couples strolling in New Orleans heat, dressed in straw hats, the women with fans in hand. Smuin does a fine job of touching on geographical diversity in his Act II selections: we see a smoking Jamaican Santa Claus, some Hawaiian bathing beauties and a show-stopping ode to Ireland with Shannon Hurlburt's sparkling tap dancing.

Mr. Hurlburt is another invaluable addition to Smuin's current cast. He performs in both "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" –- tapping alongside Mr. Cisneros, and miming the words to the song as they go –- and in "The Bells of Dublin" in a tap solo. His technique is always clean and carefree, whether he's partnering the ladies or showing us his talents as the next Fred Astaire. His snappy tapping is a performance highlight, and a fitting shift from some of the other sections.

"Sugar Rum Cherry" is Smuin à la Broadway. The lights go up to what appears our first taste of Sugar Plum Fairy-ness, and then suddenly from out of nowhere six sultry ladies in short red skirts and high red heels come strutting towards the tutu queen. We knew the Fairy Tutu Queen wouldn't last, and the six ladies steal the stage of course, both literally and figuratively, displaying a lot of leg while seated on their bar stools in the manner of Chicago's nightclub dancing. This reminds us again how great is the range of choreography Smuin can manage. Everything from classical to Broadway and back. And all of it done well.

The performance comes to a close with a jazzy "Felize Navidad", everyone paired up salsa dancing in red costumes, and then a "White Christmas" piece with a special surprise for the audience. It would be impossible to sit through this performance and emerge with any sort of grinch left in you. If you haven't seen Smuin's Christmas Ballet this year, you should. Or at least be sure to get tickets for next year. It's something everyone should see.

 

Please join a discussion of this performance in our forum.

Edited by Malcolm.


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