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Smuin Ballet’s “The Christmas Ballet”

Friday, November 26, 2010 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, Walnut Creek 

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, jazz and cabaret numbers, and each year the company refreshes the show with a couple of new pieces. The result is consistently joyous, elegant and inviting—though perhaps it’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: Classic Christmas. Photo: Scot Goodman.

Act I: The Classical Christmas, consists of 16 pieces danced to masses, carols and classical instrumentals that will be familiar to Christmas Ballet fans—Mozart’s Domine, the French carol Noël nouvelet, “Sleigh Ride” and “Deck the Halls.” New to the mix is “Carol of the Bells,” a world premiere from Smuin choreographer in residence Amy Seiwert. Jane Rehm and Travis Walker were up to the piece’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 year’s Classical Christmas sets a warm and spirited mood.

The ever-irreverent Act II: The Cool Christmas, rang in with 17 more numbers—all performed in red costumes with red framing around the stage—including favorites like Ryan Camou’s soulful solo “Drummer Boy”; the amusing “Blue Christmas,” in which dancer “groupies” fawn over a hip-swinging Matthew Linzer as Elvis; and “Santa Baby,” danced with sultry élan by Robin Cornwell. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Jonathan Powell exuded palpable chemistry in their enchanting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” while Shannon Hurlburt earned the loudest applause of the evening for his self-choreographed solo “Bells of Dublin,” an athletic Irish tap number danced to the Chieftains song. Smuin ballet mistress Amy London created “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” for the 2010 show, adding much-needed asymmetry and energy, although the ensemble becomes a bit chaotic during a sequence that includes rhythmic-gymnastic ribbons trailing after the dancers.

Act II: Cool Christmas. Matthew Linzer as Elvis. Photo: David Allen.

In fact, more asymmetry would do The Christmas Ballet a world of good. Classical’s all-white look and Cool’s all-red (the one exception is the pink prom dress in Seiwert’s delightful “Please Come Home for Christmas”) 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, “The Gloucestershire Wassail” is a sweet step dance that demonstrates strength, coordination and speed. But it pales in comparison to the all-out energy of Hurlburt’s “Bells of Dublin,” 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.

Susan Roemer (left) in Seiwert's "Please Come Home for Christmas." Photo: David Allen.

In Act II, “Christmas in New Orleans” and “Cajun Christmas” are both energetic, location-themed ensemble pieces, and they could appear in alternating years. And in “Sugar Rum Cherry,” a row of women dance a Fosse-style burlesque with chairs, doing the same steps in tandem—why not reamp the vamping with some variations in 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. It’s one of the most fun parts of the show and, other than the roaring applause for the “Bells of Dublin,” 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 and Travis Walker.

The Christmas Ballet continues:
♦ Dec. 3-4 at Sunset Center in Carmel. Tickets: 831-620-2048
♦ Dec. 8-12 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
in Mountain View. Tickets: 650-903-6000
♦ Dec. 15-24 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
in San Francisco. Tickets: 415-978-2787
SmuinBallet.org

© 2010 Claudia Bauer/SpeakingOfDance.com