Smuin's The Christmas Ballet is a Joyous Christmas Gift
December 17, 2021—One of the most popular and engaging of the Christmas ballets in the Bay Area, Smuin's The Christmas Ballet would have celebrated its 25th-anniversary last year except for the pandemic shutdown. Given the energy and enthusiasm on Thursday night, both the cast and audience were delighted to see The Christmas Ballet return to San Francisco. December 16 was opening night for this production at Yerba Buena in San Francisco, but the cast had already performed The Christmas Ballet in Mountain View and Carmel for the past two weeks. Yet their enthusiasm and energy were visibly undiminished.
While most of the works in this year's production were choreographed by Michael Smuin, several pieces were by other choreographers and included two world premiers Rex Wheeler and Ben Needham-Wood. Smuin's Christmas Ballet consists of two acts. The first act, The Classical Christmas, is a mostly serious classical ballet of dancers costumed in white, while the second act, The Cool Christmas, is comprised of fun, often hilarious skits based on contemporary holiday songs. Everyone wears red, right down to their shoes. Over the years some favorite skits remain while others are replaced from time to time. All music was recorded.
The Classical Christmas opened with the entire company performing classical ballet to Bach's Magnficat, one of Bach's most popular vocal works. Michael Smuin choreographed serious dancing, arabesques, lifts, graceful port de bras, and jetés. Both the Bach score and dancing are classical, yet upbeat and joyous. Elegant arabesques and jetés were also prominent in Cassidy Issacson's solo to the traditional Czech music of Zither Carol and in Lauren Pschirrer and Weston Krukow's pas de deux in Hodie Christus Natus Est by Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
Choreographer Rex Wheeler's world premiere Excelsis was danced with synchronized grace by Claire Buehler, Mangjun Chen, and Marc LaPierre to Vivaldi's choral Gloria in D Major. Wheeler has contributed another serious yet upbeat piece that is a pleasure to watch. Ben Needham-Wood's world premiere Showtime showed off the talents of Brennan Wall and Weston Krukow.
One of the more beautiful of the returning pieces was Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, in which seven women join hands and step in line and dance en pointe to a traditional French choral work. Reminiscent of classical Greek or Near Eastern dance, this is a somber, moving piece that shows off not only Michael Smuin's choreographic versatility but his showmanship. The women join hands and interweave in and out, under each other's arms, in a piece that is somber yet joyful and very memorable.
Part of the fun in seeing the Smuin dancers strut their stuff in a fun production is that their stuff includes more than classical ballet. The Company includes accomplished dancers who also tap dance and do British and Irish step dancing with skill. In the traditional English step-dance The Gloucestershire Wassail members of the company showed off their ballet skills, not in pointe shoes, but in low-heeled shoes, stepping with force and grace and extending in developpé. In a similar genre, Tessa Barbour stunned the audience with her dexterous tap version of an Irish Riverdance to Bells of Dublin by The Chieftains.
A hallmark of The Christmas Ballet is Smuin's versatile creativity, as in La Calandria. Sung by Linda Ronstadt in Spanish and danced by Tess Lane, the dancer is concealed by a large Mexican sombrero and serape, revealing only her pointe shoes moving to the music. Eventually, the dancer emerges from the sombrero, the serape becomes a bullfighter's cape, and this Mexican song is accompanied en pointe.
A big hit of The Christmas Ballet is always the hilarious Santa Baby, sung by the great Eartha Kitt, in which a sultry siren in red trailing a very, very long red boa rules over a group of male admirers dressed black trenchcoats and brimmed hats. Brennan Wall was exceptional as the haughty seductress scorning her suitors' attentions.
Missing this season were at least two humorous Cool Christmas skits of years past: Elvis Presley's Blue Christmas, in which a crooner is surrounded by swooning fans, and Christmas Island, where a surfer is stalked by a shark fin topped with a Santa hat. But they were more than compensated for by the old standbys the hilarious tap-dancing Christmas trees and the naughty Christmas tree prankster.
Part of what makes this show always a success is the joy it inspires, especially at the end. To Bing Crosby's White Christmas the entire company regresses to a childhood snowball fight under a blizzard snowfall. It's impossible to leave this show feeling anything but happy.
Smuin's The Christmas Ballet runs through December 19 at Yerba Buena in San Francisco. For more information see smuinballet.org.