Saturday, December 22, 2018

Smuin - "The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
December 21st, 2018 (matinee)

Celebrating the past and looking towards the future has been a theme at Smuin this year, with the contemporary ballet company marking its twenty-fifth anniversary season. That sentiment certainly rang true in 2018’s edition of The Christmas Ballet, which is just about to finish its annual San Francisco run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Featuring thirty distinct, festive dance vignettes, the two-part wintry revue paired choreographic favorites from years past with more recent additions as well as two world premieres. As always, the performance moved along at a brisk pace - if a particular dance or piece of music wasn’t your speed, something new would be along in short order.

Ian Buchana and Mattia Pallozzi in
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Photo Chris Hardy
If you’re a fan of traditional ballet vocabulary and sweeping scores, Act I’s ‘Classical Christmas’ is a great fit. The cast is costumed in sparkling, bright white; the staged is adorned with large billowy fabric swaths; and the subtle lighting sets a demure mood. Several works stood out amongst this first group of fifteen. Terez Dean Orr and Robert Kretz in company founder Michael Smuin’s Hodie Christus Natus Est were the epitome of elegance and grandeur. One cannot ignore the abundance of lovely lines and steps, but what sets this pas de deux apart are its unexpected moments. Supported jumps had surprising landings, finishing en pointe but with the leg in pliĆ©; lifts would spin backwards with the shoulders being the only point of connection between the two. Longtime Smuin Choreographer-in-Residence and now the Artistic Director of Sacramento Ballet, Amy Seiwert’s Caroling, Caroling, Bright, Bright tackled the complex pas de cinq configuration, and in doing so, revealed its compositional potential and promise. Premiering this year was former company artist Rex Wheeler’s God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, a duet danced by Mengjun Chen and Ben Needham-Wood at this matinee. While the choreography itself was a bit busy for my taste, the pairing of Chen and Needham-Wood must be acknowledged. They can do it all – turns, jumps, batterie, balances – and in such precise unison.

Delightful Celtic influences also found their way into The Christmas Ballet’s classical offerings. An ensemble dance choreographed by current company dancer Nicole Haskins, Fantasia included a hearty dose of delicate petit allegro – cabrioles abounded as did Italian changements. Fueled by a waltz clog rhythmic base, Smuin’s The Gloucestershire Wassail contributed its own Celtic flair, coupling fast footwork with a quiet upper body. I loved the choreography in each, but in addition, both dances brought a tone of community, playfulness and fun to an act that tends to be more reflective and earnest in quality and atmosphere.  

Valerie Harmon and Peter Kurta in
Meet Me in the City on Christmas
Photo Chris Hardy
Speaking of fun, Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’ was filled with it – musical theater style vignettes, vivacious characters, an impish Christmas tree, even surfers avoiding a shark. The packed house (on a Friday afternoon no less) was enthralled and entertained by the festive mosaic, as was I, though I was more pulled to the dancier episodes and less to the novelty ones. Another work by Haskins, J-I-N-G-L-E Bells had some impressive rhythmic depth. I can’t be sure if this particular rendition of the famed Christmas song was actually composed in different meters, though the choreography certainly reflected a change in pulse, making it both riveting and buoyant. With a winning collection of stomp time steps and cramp rolls turns, Shannon Hurlburt’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer introduced yet another rhythmical element to the program. It’s a super tap duet (danced by Maggie Carey and Valerie Harmon), though there was a tendency to try and fit too many steps into a single phrase. But it was the sophisticated, chic, lyrical pas de deux that were the stars of the second half. Lauren Pschirrer and Needham-Wood, in the world premiere of company dancer Erica Felsch’s Meet Me in the City on Christmas, were the tops. With starry lights and a park bench framing the glorious, grand movements, the scene could have easily been part of an old Hollywood movie musical, and Pschirrer and Needham-Wood looked absolutely stunning together. Harmon and Peter Kurta were equally sublime in Seiwert’s River. Every time I see this dance, that amazing straight-legged fifth position spinning lift takes my breath away.     

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