Choreographed by: Michael Smuin, Amy Seiwert, Rex Wheeler, Erica Felsch, Ben Needham-Wood
When: December 13-24, 2018
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, YBCA Theater, 700 Howard Street (at Third), San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$91. Call 415-912-1899 or visit www.smuinballet.org
in 'The Christmas Show'
Old-timers know to expect the 40-foot boa — but Smuin’s annual production of “The Christmas Ballet” however, offers plenty more surprises.
Though the first act stays true to Smuin’s roots as a ballet company, by intermission all its dancers have established a willingness to break their body lines, and shown the ability to do so artfully.
After a suite of pieces that earn the first act’s name as the “Classical Christmas,” the show begins its evolution into eclecticism with “The Gloucestershire Wassail,” a piece that magnifies the uplifting, perky postures of traditional English folk dance while complicating what is typically simple footwork with turnouts and higher jumps. In perfect synchronicity with the song, the dancers become a cast of characters conversing about small village matters. Dancing to this traditional rhyme makes for upbeat acting, and the dancers show their commitment to entertain with bright facial expressions without compromising strength and technique.
Unlike other well-known classical ballet shows, storytelling in “The Christmas Show” is contained within each dance number, never building on each other in plot. Smuin embraces this opportunity to scale the range of emotions, without being overwhelming. Rather, the variety show is arranged so that the experience is comprehensive if a little random at the surface. The true feat is a well-sequenced show that strikes the perfect emotional balance. You will never be sobered, tickled, devastated, or warmed for too long.
The second act opens with a jazz number starring a pair of onesie-clad dancers among a sea of sexy and sophisticated red costumes. In a similar warm embrace of quirk, the next piece, “Winter Weather,” layers swing and a cutesy ’50s nerdy-boy-meets-nerdy girl plot line. Their playful exaggeration is pure joy to watch, because maybe for Smuin dancers, letting loose into a all-out boogie is as natural as pointing their toes.
Smuin’s risqué rendition of “Santa Baby,” complete with red hot high heels and the company’s signature feather boa, does not disappoint. Rather, it is proven to be in good company with an ostentatious tree (“Christmas Tree Rock”) and an Elvis impersonation sufficiently choreographed with pelvis thrusts and swooning blonde-wigged women (“Blue Christmas”).
The company continues its confident use of props throughout the remainder of the show. Red and white ribbons fill Amy London’s choreography to “Most Wonderful Time” performed by the full company. Additionally, in the cleverly choreographed “La Calandria,” the woman lead matches the song’s sultry Spanish tone with a careful yet strong command over a sombrero and silk muleta, both of which are creatively wielded for a feminized bullfight.
Two of the most captivating pieces in the second half are extremes in what makes them captivating.
First, Smuin ballet veteran Shannon Hurlburt returned for a reprise of his signature tap solo to “Bells of Dublin.” Though he has been away from the company for four years, his comeback in this year’s holiday show showcased his penchant for Irish step dance technicality. Throughout, he keeps quick and steady pace, and at times introduces a quicker beat that makes for an energizing performance.
In contrast, Amy Seiwert’s choreography to “River,” which immediately follows Hurlburt’s impressive quickness, is slow and longing. This is a piece replete with holds and lifts, a test of strength. The elegant partner work creates the illusion of one single continuous stream of movement: a tilt turns into a twirl into a lift. The effect is magical, and all without the bells and whistles of props or an unanticipated style of dance — just pure, good contemporary dance and ballet.
The oscillations in mood and style keep the audience on its toes, and it is this element of surprise that Smuin nails in “The Christmas Ballet.” Now in its 25th year, the company should be proud of its wide repertoire and ever innovating spirit. Smuin’s “The Christmas Show” is an annual tradition that never gets old.