Monday, December 30, 2013

"XXmas: The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
December 24th, 2013
Photo: Patrick Fraser

The holiday dance scene in the Bay Area has a wonderful sense of variety: ODC/Dance’s annual “Velveteen Rabbit”, numerous versions of “Nutcracker” and shorter holiday-themed works that become part of mixed repertory programs in the month of December. Another delightful mainstay is Smuin Ballet’s “The Christmas Ballet”. An evening-length production, “The Christmas Ballet” is a collection of short dance vignettes; the first half set to traditional music and the second to more popular, and sometimes humorous, selections. Not only is this year’s iteration (cleverly dubbed “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet”) a family-friendly festive celebration but it is also part of a company milestone, the twentieth anniversary season.

Act I, subtitled ‘Classical Christmas’, pairs dance with sixteen works of time-honored holiday music. And though all the music in this first half is very traditional, it is juxtaposed against a wide spectrum of different choreographic styles from classical, modern and neo-classical ballet to romantic and lyrical movement. Nicole Haskins absolutely sparkled in Michael Smuin’s ‘Zither Carol’, “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet’s” first solo. Even in this relatively short variation, Haskins stunning technique was a revelation. Her single-foot balances on pointe go on and on no matter the position (passé, arabesque or coupé). Her standing foot never wavered, not even in a deep fondu arabesque, and the dreaded front shoulder that tends to pop up during turning combinations was nowhere to be found. A premiere work for this year’s production, Robert Dekkers’ ‘The Bells’ was an advanced dissertation in choreographic form. A perfect and diverse marriage of canon, unison and accumulation leapt from the stage, mixing independent movement lines with interdependent group architecture. Peppered throughout were fast-paced transitions and details of the hands and head - signatures of Dekkers’ creative choreography. Smuin’s ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail” seamlessly fused two different choreographic forms: Irish dance and classical ballet. The two fit together beautifully in this crowd favorite; tombé pas de boureés were marked with parallel pas de basques while turned out pas de chats were combined with ankle rocking.   

Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’ brought fifteen additional dance sketches, each set to a more contemporary musical arrangement. Amy Seiwert’s “I Pray on Christmas” was all about community togetherness and a liveliness of spirit. The lyrics of the song deliver an important message, but when combined with Seiwert’s upbeat and jazzy social dance theme, it becomes clear that serious doesn’t have to be downtrodden or melancholy. There can be joy and hope present as well. Seiwert’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, the second premiere work in the 2013 line-up, again took ballet to a new place, playing with what the art form can do, not what it is. While exploring the role and definition of ballet today, Seiwert created a complex mosaic where ballet, hip hop and jive intersected. Percussive dance was the final highlight of “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet’s” second half with three fantastic pieces of Michael Smuin’s choreography. From the rhythmical waltz clog of ‘Droopy Little Christmas Tree’ to Shannon Hurlburt’s tour de force ‘Bells of Dublin’ to the men’s group performance in ‘The Blackville Reel’, percussive movement reigned supreme. The line of unison double pull-backs in ‘The Blackville Reel’ was particularly magnificent as it soared and floated from downstage toward the back cyclorama.

The only malady that “XXmas: The Christmas Ballet” suffers from is too many isolated dance sequences. The overall length of the performance is absolutely perfect; it doesn’t need to be shorter. But when there are over thirty scenes in two plus hours, it creates too much stopping and starting.     

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