Saturday, December 28, 2019

"The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
December 23rd, 2019 (matinee)

This season has been all about revisiting some of the longtime holiday dance traditions that the Northern Californian region has to offer. And there are plenty – the lineage here for festive choreographic programming is significant. My final stop was at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to take in Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s twenty-fifth edition of The Christmas Ballet, a revue style program that pairs numerous dance forms and genres with jolly musical selections. Divided into two halves of short dance musings, Classical Christmas and Cool Christmas, much enchantment and joy awaits with every new number, many of which were choreographed by the company’s founder Michael Smuin. A great holiday dance sampler, indeed!

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
in Amy London's Still, Still, Still
Photo Chris Hardy
Because I’ve seen this production several times (though each year is slightly different), what follows are simply some highlights – performances and choreography that stood out as particularly noteworthy in 2019’s iteration. With its delicate balances and luxurious turns, Smuin’s Zither Carol was again part of the line-up and Maggie Carey was sublime in the treasured pointe solo – her attitude poses floated timelessly in space. Sleigh Ride, a quartet choreographed by Amy Seiwert, had some of the best unison of the day, and managed to walk that fine line of being technically demanding without looking too busy or fussy. A new addition to the mix this year, Amy London’s Still, Still, Still impressed with its lyrical elegance, grand lifts and clever incorporation of gesture. This dance for six is surely already in the running for next season’s The Christmas Ballet. Other returning favorites included Smuin’s hypnotically meditative Veni, Veni Emmanuel, interpreted by the women in the company. The walking patterns, the stage architecture, the port de bras – everything is so pure and unencumbered, and the result, powerful. Whimsical Celtic footwork and social dance patterns imbued the charming The Gloucestershire Wassail. And closing the Classical Christmas scene was Nicole Haskins’ jubilant ensemble piece Joy To The World. Grand majesty soared from the stage in every moment of this finale, especially during Ian Buchanan’s incredible multi-pirouette sequence. 

Ben Needham-Wood in
Val Caniparoli's Jingle Bells Mambo
Photo David Allen
The Christmas Ballet’s second half, Cool Christmas, is chock full of fun, novelty and humor. And while I think that some of the vignettes might be a bit dated and perhaps ready for retirement, the audience’s uproarious laughter is certainly indicative of their immense enjoyment throughout. One of the more technical dances in the act, Mengjun Chen was impeccable in Smuin’s Drummer Boy – his enviable ballon informing every beat, jump and leap. Jingle Bells was a popular musical option. Haskins’ J-I-N-G-L-E Bells featured a cute reference to Swan Lake’s famous cygnet variation and Val Caniparoli’s Jingle Bells Mambo (another stellar example of unison by Buchanan, Ben Needham-Wood and Max van der Sterre) brought the rarely seen Italian changement to the stage. But by far what I look most forward to in this act is the percussive dance. Some years it appears more prominently than in others, and this year it had a strong presence. There was the waltz clog in Droopy Little Christmas Tree, Tessa Barbour’s rhythm tap solo (with terrific toe stands) in Bells of Dublin and a new, endearing tap duet, created by Barbour to It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas. Danced by Carey and Cassidy Isaacson, its old-school tap vocabulary of back walks, time steps, essences and riffs was both winsome and nostalgic.

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