Smuin Ballet – The Christmas Ballet

Smuin Ballet – The Christmas Ballet

San Francisco

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

December 18 -29, 2002

Deck the halls! Here comes Michael Smuin’s Christmas Ballet. Polished to near-perfection, all wrapped up in kitsch, it’s a wonderful antidote for holiday stress, blues, whatever it is that’s dragging you down. Or not. And there’s nary a Nutcracker in sight. Sharks, a drunken Santa and a tap-dancing snowman but no Nutcrackers. This annual confection has been around for eight seasons now and the company has it down pat. The dancing is smooth as a silk gift ribbon and precise as nine lords a’leaping. Which is not to say that it’s more ho hum than ho ho ho. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun, the dancers or the audience.

It starts out with “A Classical Christmas,” Smuin’s 12-part setting of traditional carols and other holiday music. Beginning with a segment of Bach’s Magnificat and ending with a grand finale out of the same composer’s Christmas Oratorio, this is something of a “white ballet,” en pointe and classical as its name. With a few exceptions. Rodolphe Cassand danced a wonderfully athletic solo to “Riu, Riu Chiu,” a traditional Spanish song, and Roberto Cisneros brought the house down in a rocking gospel setting of “Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.” “The Gloucestershire Wassail” was something straight out of Riverdance (maybe a little better) but the best was yet to come and it had nothing to do with Christmas at all.

“Licht Bensh’n,” a nod to Chanukah, opens with the marvelous Celia Fushille-Burke, the best dancer in the Smuin stable, dancing alone to a melting clarinet. This segues into a spirited klezmer hora, during which she is courted by a quartet of yeshiva students and then left alone again. But one (Easton Smith) returns and the segment ends in a joyous pas de deux.

Another lovely dance for two was done to the “Largo” from Corelli’s Christmas Concerto by Lee Bell and former Kirov and San Francisco Ballet soloist Galina Alexandrova, in her second season with Smuin Ballet and a possible successor to Fushille-Burke’s crown. Generally, however, Smuin’s choreography is at its most original in the ethnic and character segments. With the exception of “Largo,” the strictly classical portions of “A Classical Christmas” contained nothing that hasn’t been seen before.

A word about background and lighting. Sara Linnie Slocum has got to be the Pablo Picasso of local lighting design. Whether a sky full of stars or tongues of flame against a night sky, her background projections were perfect for each scene. She floods the stage with colored light that becomes an integral part of the dance. A delightful overture to each act is painterly as well: Renaissance angels and trumpeters for Act One and a series of children’s brightly-colored holiday drawings for Act Two.

And Act Two, “The Cool Christmas,” is what people will think of when they think ofThe Christmas Ballet. Louis Armstrong, Willie Nelson, Leon Redbone, Tchaikovsky by way of Duke Ellington – this is an eclectic grab bag of pop that begins sedately enough with an ensemble dance to Armstrong’s “Christmas in New Orleans” and Shannon Hurlbut’s fantastic solo to “Little Drummer Boy” and slides farther and farther off the wall as it goes on.

Fushille-Burke trails the world’s longest feather boa and a string of sugar daddies to Eartha Kitt’s famous “Santa Baby” and pairs again with Easton for a funny and seductive “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” “Frosty the Snowman” (Pedro Gamino) tap dances across the stage, as does a trio of Christmas trees headed for the garbage dump (perhaps an homage to Beach Blanket Babylon). There is a riotous “Reggae Christmas,” courtesy of the Heptones and another Riverdance turn by Shannon Hurlbut to The Chieftains’ “The Bells of Dublin.”

There’s “Rudolph” and “Sugar Rum Cherry,” a sexy version of the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker and the whole thing gets goofier and goofier as Smuin pulls out all the stops and every sight gag in Santa’s bag of tricks. Funniest of all is Redbone’s “Christmas Island,” a hula in paradise, complete with surfers and shark.

Where will it all end? With a ring-a-ding-Bing, of course. “White Christmas” brings the curtain down in a mini-blizzard of snow, falling on dancers and audience alike. Not to mention a storm of applause.

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San Francisco ,
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”