Friday, November 26, 2010 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, Walnut CreekÂ
In just about every family, the senior generation passes holiday traditions on to the younger folk, who update here and there to keep the dusty old rituals relevant. The Smuin Ballet family is no exception: In 1995, Michael Smuin created the popular The Christmas Ballet, with its signature mix of classical ballet, jazzÂ and cabaret numbers, and each year the company refreshes the show with a couple of new pieces. The result is consistently joyous, elegant and invitingâ€”though perhaps itâ€™s time for the kids to shake the holiday tree a bit more than usual.
A packed house welcomed The Christmas Ballet to the Lesher Center for its season launch on Friday night. The show began as a holiday show should: With the first strains of the Magnificat, the women doffed their colorful capes, and one immediately felt the comfort that traditions bring and the sense that all would be right with the world, if only for the next two hours.
Act I: The Classical Christmas, consists of 16 pieces danced to masses, carols and classical instrumentals that will be familiar to Christmas Ballet fansâ€”Mozartâ€™s Domine, the French carol NoÃ«l nouvelet, â€œSleigh Rideâ€ and â€œDeck the Halls.â€ New to the mix is â€œCarol of the Bells,â€ a world premiere from Smuin choreographer in residence Amy Seiwert. Jane Rehm and Travis Walker were up to the pieceâ€™s fleet footwork, with the company serving as a corps of graceful snowflakes behind their pas de deux. Ably and happily performed in the customary all-white costumes and backdrop of gathered white drapery, this yearâ€™s Classical Christmas sets a warm and spirited mood.
The ever-irreverent Act II: The Cool Christmas, rang in with 17 more numbersâ€”all performed in red costumes with red framing around the stageâ€”including favorites like Ryan Camou’s soulful solo â€œDrummer Boyâ€; the amusing â€œBlue Christmas,â€ in which dancer â€œgroupiesâ€ fawn over a hip-swinging Matthew Linzer as Elvis; and â€œSanta Baby,â€ danced with sultry Ã©lan by Robin Cornwell. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Jonathan Powell exuded palpable chemistry in their enchanting â€œBaby, Itâ€™s Cold Outside,â€ while Shannon Hurlburt earned the loudest applause of the evening for his self-choreographed solo â€œBells of Dublin,â€ an athletic Irish tap number danced to the Chieftains song. Smuin ballet mistress Amy London created â€œItâ€™s The Most Wonderful Time of the Yearâ€ for the 2010 show, adding much-needed asymmetry and energy, although the ensemble becomes a bit chaotic during a sequenceÂ that includesÂ rhythmic-gymnastic ribbons trailing after the dancers.
In fact, more asymmetry would do The Christmas Ballet a world of good. Classicalâ€™s all-white look and Coolâ€™s all-red (the one exception is the pink prom dress in Seiwertâ€™s delightful â€œPlease Come Home for Christmasâ€) are here to stay, so varying the choreography is the only way to keep the show full of surprises. To that end, editing each half down a bit and revisiting some of the old choreography would help enliven the pacing.
For example, in the first act, â€œThe Gloucestershire Wassailâ€ is a sweet step dance that demonstrates strength, coordination and speed. But it pales in comparison to the all-out energy of Hurlburtâ€™s â€œBells of Dublin,â€ so perhaps the company could choose one or the other? Some of the Act I pieces overlap in mood and movement; overall, trimming two or three dances from the Classical Christmas would allow each piece to get fuller attention from the audience.
In Act II, â€œChristmas in New Orleansâ€ and â€œCajun Christmasâ€ are both energetic, location-themed ensemble pieces, andÂ they could appear in alternating years.Â And in â€œSugar Rum Cherry,â€ a row of women dance a Fosse-style burlesque with chairs, doing the same steps in tandemâ€”why not reamp the vamping with someÂ variations inÂ timing?
Audiences love The Christmas Ballet exactly as it is. They would also be delighted by some exciting updates: At the end of the evening, the whole company comes onstage to dance freestyle, showing off leaps and pirouettes while tossing handfuls of snow into the air. Itâ€™s one of the most fun parts of the show and, other than the roaring applause for the â€œBells of Dublin,â€ it garnered the biggest cheers. One wishes for more of that energy, enthusiasm and freshness throughout the whole program, to ensure a tradition that grows ever stronger.
The other fine Smuin dancers performing that night were Darren Anderson, Terez Dean, John Speed Orr, Jane Rehm, Susan Romer, Jean Michelle Sayeg, Erica Shipp, Shane Tice, Jessica Touchet andÂ Travis Walker.
The Christmas Ballet continues:
â™¦ Dec. 3-4 at Sunset Center in Carmel. Tickets: 831-620-2048
â™¦ Dec. 8-12 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
in Mountain View. Tickets: 650-903-6000
â™¦ Dec. 15-24 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
in San Francisco. Tickets: 415-978-2787
Â© 2010Â Claudia Bauer/SpeakingOfDance.com