Ballet has its stable of warhorses (Giselle, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty), but in every company’s manger, there’s just one cash cow. For Smuin, it’s the Christmas Ballet. Unless this comfort animal can calve new and relevant life, it might be best to put it out to pasture before it registers “Cash Only,” with discriminating audiences demanding to know “Where’s the beef?”
It’s not that the dancers lack the chops. Several glisten: Zachary Artice, Tessa Barbour, Maggie Carey, Mengjun Chen, Peter Kurta, Terez Dean Orr, João Sampaio, and Max van der Sterre. The problem is conceptual. Matching academic steps to sacred music in Act I: Classical Christmas and then in Act II’s Cool Christmas: jazz steps to old favorites of the Yuletide persuasion, while tipping a yarmulke to what Christians ecumenically fancy as “Jewish” (Licht Bensh’n), but what actual Jews might call a “potchke,” is what all of Christendom might tag “pandering.” Low points were the musical ensemble number danced to “Joy to the World” (choreography: Nicole Haskins), and “Blue Christmas,” which had a gyrating van der Sterre in red tights (over a dance belt bulging like an overstuffed Christmas stocking) looking like Late Elvis Presley on downers.
The more successful numbers included “The Gloucestershire Wassail,” a character ensemble step-dancing piece, pertly and expertly executed; “La virgen lava pañales,” danced earnestly by Mengjun Chen; “Domine” with lush partnering by Terez Dean Orr and Brennan Wall; “Gratias,” a sculptural piece of mobile architecture danced by Tessa Barbour, Ricardo Dyer, and van der Sterre; and “Silver Bells” (choreography by Rex Wheeler), waltzed spiffily by Maggie Carey and Ben Needham-Wood. Carey is a versatile pro, whose commitment to a storyline is gently present throughout.
You’d expect the post-WWII generation, its majority too young now to recall the Elvis reliquary, to gravitate more toward The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Trini López, Stevie Wonder, or Jimi Hendrix. That generation of audience turns out to offer glory to Smuin in the highest decibels. To this heterodox, their explosive applause issues from an act of faith larded with epidemic wishful thinking. Is there really joy in a world where “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” goes off-grid under the lash of political correctness, but Elvis and Christ can both rule as King, provided that loyal subjects still buy the milk?
In 1995, Michael Smuin former Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet, then at the helm of the brand new company under his own flag, debuted “The Christmas Ballet” at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Smuin set it in two stylistically distinct acts, a “classical” and a “cool” Christmas. Like most major ballet companies in the United States, the new company needed a holiday ballet to capitalize on North America’s well-established tradition of attending winter holiday shows.
By 1996, I was a ballet student at the San Francisco Academy of Ballet, where Smuin rented rehearsal space. I had the unique opportunity to see The Christmas Ballet staged, rehearsed, and coached. I thrilled at having unfiltered access to the professional dancers’ aired opinions, ears attuned to every nuance of dressing room banter. Now, twenty-three years later, I find myself at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center, tingling in anticipation of revisiting fond and still vivid Smuin Ballet memories. That the dancers and staff worked very hard to mount this year’s show is fully in evidence, though it was a mixed bag. Even so, those in a mood to get their holiday spirit on, need look no further.
The evening begins in a classical ballet setting. Dancers were clad in white, suggestive of a snowy winter world. Vignettes, solos, pas de deux, and swirling corps de ballet patterns fill the first act. Smuin’s choreography creates a regal and romantic fantasy that moves at an exciting pace and is pleasing to watch. The dancers’ timing, cohesiveness and chemistry, make the pas de six the highlight of the first act. Mengjun Chen stands out for his precise technique. His solo is the picture of committed artistry.
By contrast, Act II’s Cool Christmas is a playlist of mid-20th-century favorites, laughs, gags, and physical pyrotechnics. During the1990s, much of Smuin Ballet’s artistic personality emerged from a diverse cast that brought stylistic accuracy. That ensemble’s heterogeneity gave it an edge that other ballet companies with a more cookie-cutter corps de ballet aesthetic struggled to achieve and sustain. Tonight, with a more homogeneous cast, occasional misfires reveal that Smuin is unable to capture the texture and versatility in styles that the second half of the evening’s work demands.
Tessa Barbour’s approach to “Santa Baby” offers one example. It’s intended as a winking and prop-laden romp about a gold-digging tease, detailing her holiday strategy to her Santa Claus Sugar Daddy. Barbour’s statuesque look runs contrary to the lush dimensions of a barroom seductress. Coupled with her Instagram model approach and lack of physical bravura, Barbour delivers a weakened character, with gags suffering as a result. Max van der Sterre, continuing the trend, worked away at his Elvis Presley portrayal in “Blue Christmas”. Yet more work is in order to nail Elvis’s signature move sets. On the other hand, van der Sterre gives us a pitch perfect, myopic goofball in the sock hop “Christmas Tree Rock” piece by Rex Wheeler. Tessa Barbour and Maggie Carrey execute the tap duo “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” choreographed by Barbour, with aplomb and sharpshooting accuracy. The tongue-in-cheek pas de deux, set to the now-controversial “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” no longer appears in Act II.