Michael Smuin’s legacy continues on with the company’s annual fête, The Christmas Ballet. First appearing in 1995, this festive dance event is celebrating its 22nd season. It’s a crowd pleaser with a range of dance styles from aloofly classical ballet en pointe to ’50s popular dance stepped out in black-and-white sneakers and bobby sox.
Presented as a series of mostly narrative dances set to various holiday songs, the choreography is similarly eclectic. Most of the dances were danced in their original steps by Smuin, but nine pieces were set by Smuin company dancers, including Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert, Nicole Haskins, Rex Wheeler and Ben Needham-Wood. The latter three are dancing in the current production and are active performers in the company.
The production is divided in two parts, the first emphasizing classical ballet. Long white drapes separated like columns and tied back with long pale pink tassels provide the sets for the first half, and all the dancers are in white, the women in toe shoes. After the opening “Magnificat” with slides showing Renaissance angels followed by the ensemble dancing, Erin Yarborough-Powell and Jonathan Powell danced the duet “Noel Nouvelet” choreographed by Amy Seiwert. This lovely duet deviated slightly from the tone of the rest of the pieces, which are largely reminiscent of Smuin’s choreography. “Noel Nouvelet” showcased Seiwert’s very individual choreographic style – complex, meticulous and thoughtful. The cast of dancers changes with each performance.
Later in the first half the company danced “We Three Kings,” a world premiere by the London-born dancer Rex Wheeler, showing a lightheartedness in his approach to choreography.
The first half closed out with a nod to cultural diversity, presenting Smuin’s homage to Celtic dance, “The Gloucestershire Wassail,” with the company tapping across the stage in bright clog-dancing, without clogs as we know them. The women’s shoes bedecked with fluffy sparkling puffs. Following that a Festival of Lights with “Licht Bensh’n” or Candle Blessing and “Dobra Notsch” was danced by Erica Felsch, delicately negotiating flirtatious but easily distracted guys sporting white yarmulkes. The final piece, “Joy to the World,” was a vibrant ensemble piece choreographed by Nicole Haskins.
While snowy white was the color of the ballet half of the program, Santa Claus–red garbed the second half, billed as “Cool Christmas.” And it’s pretty hot. Starting in New Orleans with the company accessorizing their bright red costumes with straw hats, the program moves quickly to Erica Felsch dragging a boa as long as the stage is wide across the stage in Smuin’s playful interpretation of “Santa Baby.” The men dressed in long black coats offer her more than their white-garbed predecessors. This is the kind of slinky show biz dance that Smuin excelled out – sexy, flirtatious and endlessly fun.
Following, “La Calandria” danced by Tessa Barbour added a little southern spice. And that was followed by “The Christmas Island” with hula girls in tinselly red versions of grass skirts, a precariously balanced surfer and a shark that cruises through the waves wearing a Santa hat on his dorsal fin. “River,” a second world premiere by Amy Seiwert and set to Joni Mitchell, was splendidly danced by Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz. And Ben Needham-Wood showed that twirling drumsticks was the real gift to us all in his solo dance to “The Little Drummer Boy.” More selections filled out the program, which ended with Ben Needham-Wood’s adaptation of Smuin’s “White Christmas.” Everything warmly and brilliantly danced by this enduring company, and everything you could wish for in a Christmas ballet.
– Jaime Robles
The Christmas Ballet plays through December 24 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets and information, call 415-912-1899 or visit www.smuinballet.org.
Photo: Terez Dean and Rex Wheeler in “Winter Weather.” Photo by Keith Sutter.