Saturday, December 26, 2020

"The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Streamed Dec. 11th-24th

I can only imagine the celebratory experience Smuin Contemporary Ballet had envisioned for the 25th anniversary of its festive The Christmas Ballet. Retrospectives, remembrances, ample premieres. Then this year happened. But true to Smuin form, they adapted quickly and made new plans. The result was incredibly celebratory, and exceedingly festive, even though the troupe and its audience couldn’t physically be in the same space.

Tess Lane
Photo Max ven der Sterre

The company, under the leadership of Artistic Director Celia Fushille, came up with a great alternative format. The Christmas Ballet would unfold over three unique programs. Each of Smuin’s dancer pods (4-5 dancers working together while adhering to strict COVID protocols) would have a dedicated bill in which they would dance premiere and previous selections from The Christmas Ballet’s two halves: Classical Christmas and Cool Christmas. Following these new performances, Smuin would screen archival footage (the same on each of the three nights) of The Christmas Ballet, especially those portions requiring a larger cast.

I saw the programs in a B, C, A order, so up first for me was the quartet of Ian Buchanan, Maggie Carey, Tess Lane and Max van der Sterre. Six dances, of which two were world premieres, made up their set. The four choreographically collaborated on a new White Christmas offering, highlighting the classic beauty of ballet vocabulary - Buchanan’s fouetté/pirouette sequence mid-way through was particularly impressive. The sassy Snow Day!, from former Smuin dancer Rex Wheeler, delighted at every turn. Skating and skiing-inspired movement abounded as did springy pas de chats. And no snow day would be complete without a snowball fight; here, we were treated to a fun, stylized version. As has always been the case with The Christmas Ballet, company founder Michael Smuin’s choreography was front and center. In the remaining four works, the viewer was reminded that Smuin was both a leader in entertainment and at thinking outside box as to what is possible in the field of ballet. Crisp batterie and backwards-spinning lifts; parallel positions and inventive jumps onto demi-pointe; joyful, romantic epaulement and traditional attitude balances - the creativity was undeniable.

Program C’s more challenging quintet grouping (Tessa Barbour, Mengjun Chen, Ricardo Dyer, Lauren Pschirrer and Brennan Wall) proved no match for the choreographic visions of Barbour and Ben Needham-Wood, both of whom brought world premiere dances to the screen. Barbour’s We Wish You a Merry Christmas had an unmistakable dynamism throughout and highlighted some amazing turning acumen, specifically Pschirrer’s front attitude spin. Needham-Wood’s Thank God It’s Christmas was full of abandon, merriment and seamlessly blended an innovative variety of physical vocabularies together. Wall contributed the third premiere on this bill, a lovely, wispy duet titled Christmas Concerto. Danced by Barbour and Pschirrer, what struck about this piece was how it emphasized how different steps use the floor in a distinct manner – chaissé, tombé, relevé. But by far, the standout of Program C was Smuin’s percussive solo, Bells of Dublin. It’s a stunner every year and 2020 was no exception. Barbour’s rhythmical tap was as crisp and energetic as could be, while the upper body countered, remaining calm, still and quiet. 

Terez Dean Orr
Photo Brandon Alexander

Last up for my Smuin dance card was pod A’s (Brandon Alexander, Cassidy Isaacson, John Speed Orr and Terez Dean Orr) program two days before Christmas. The holiday cheer kicked off with two dances of elegance, regality and long elastic arabesques, leading into Amy Seiwert’s delightful premiere, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?, gorgeously performed by Dean Orr and Speed Orr. Suspended, soaring movements and deep lunges informed the jazzy pas de deux. Every instant was flirty and romantic with an almost retro-like glamour that Smuin Contemporary Ballet is well known for. An additional picturesque duet took the bill’s next spot ushering in a humorous, theatrical romp with some stunning fouettés, ‘Zat You Santa Clause?, a new work choreographed by Isaacson. And finally, rhythm, timing, accents and unexpected emphasis was in the cards with Nicole Haskins’ J-I-N-G-L-E Bells.

As previously mentioned, the archival portion of this year’s The Christmas Ballet was the same on each bill, featuring current company artists and alums in some of the production’s most famed chapters (unless otherwise noted, the selections are choreographed by Michael Smuin). The grand occasion of Magnificat. The swirling, sinuous flavor of Seiwert’s Noel Nouvelet, danced by Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Jonathan Powell. The punctuated partnered split jump in Unto Us a Child is Born. The patterning, stage architecture and grounded-ness of Veni, Veni Emmanuel. The fantastic unison in Haskins’ Joy to the World. Then we were onto the ‘Cool Christmas’ curated collection. I definitely have my favorite dances in this lot, though it’s the inclusion of jazz and old school tap on the concert stage that I find most appealing and noteworthy. Barbour’s ebullient tap duet, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas with its single and double backwalks had nostalgic charm to spare. Seiwert’s I Pray on Christmas with its full layouts and abundant tuck jumps spoke of easygoing fun. Also from Seiwert came one of the most beautiful duets in The Christmas Ballet’s canon, danced by Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz, River. It’s voluminous. It’s expansive. And the spinning lift in fifth position takes my breath away every time I see it. 

Tessa Barbour
Photo Brennan Wall

I think the only thing missing for me was that the save a few excerpts from 2016, 2017 and 2018, the archival material was mostly from last year’s performance. With this being The Christmas Ballet’s silver anniversary, some film clips from 1995-2015 would have been a lovely addition.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Ballet 22

Roberto Vega Ortiz and Christopher Kaiser in
Joshua Stayton's Juntos
Breaking Ground
Streamed Dec 11th-20th 

I vividly remember getting my first pair of pointe shoes. I remember being taught how to sew the elastics and ribbons as well as the proper way to tie them on the ankle and calf. I remember the first time I felt strong enough to let go of the barre on full pointe. And I remember plié-ing in fourth position, both excited and terrified, to try my first pirouette in center.

I wonder if the artists of Ballet22 have those same remembrances. Because Ballet22 is all about pointe, specifically about upending the gender norms that surround pointework. A new East Bay-based troupe, led by the creative team of Artistic Director Roberto Vega Ortiz and Executive Director Theresa Knudson, Ballet22 seeks to make pointe an inclusive experience, and provide opportunities for mxn, cis-gender, transgender and non-binary artists to showcase their incredible skill and talent as pointe dancers outside of an ‘en travesti’ context. This month, they debuted their first virtual program, Breaking Ground, a potent collection of six short works, many of which were filmed at the ODC Theater by the Concept 04 team of Natasha Adorlee, Max Sachar and Rob Suguitan.

Fittingly, the mid-December offering began with a little bit of Nutcracker, reimagining the grand pas de deux as Fritz’s Dream Pas de Deux, danced by Vega Ortiz and Donghoon Lee. The pointework was grounded throughout; the lifts, buoyant. And such a strong sense of equality was present in the partnering. Instead of it seeming that one dancer was ‘being partnered by the other,’ the duet struck a more egalitarian tone - the two were clearly working together to achieve all the steps and shapes.

Breaking Ground’s second work, Metamorphosis, featuring an international cast of dancers in a mélange of studio and outdoor spaces, was my favorite on the program. As the camera panned from one dancer to another soloing en pointe in their respective spaces, the joy was palpable. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time. Aptly titled, the work was truly transformative, and as a viewer, I knew that I was watching the field shift in real-time. 

Dancemaker Joshua A. Stayton explained in the introduction to his piece Juntos that the multi-chapter ensemble work was about the idea of togetherness. To that end, abundant unison work informed the challenging choreography, which ran the gamut from classical ballet syntax to more contemporary vocabulary. Swirling spins and soaring carries were handily interpreted and communication by six dance artists, though it was the moments of whimsy and fun that grabbed one’s attention, like the shaking of the head at the top of a lift.

That theme of togetherness continued in the second half of Breaking Ground’s bill, as the company joined forces to communicate through their pointework (as well as in the moments where they weren’t on pointe). Before the World Ends brought another collage of artists from around the globe. Swan Lake Pas De Huit, staged by Vega Ortiz after Lev Ivanov, examined the balance, grace and elegance of Odette and Siegfried’s duet, embodied by four different couples. Breaking Ground concluded with the most contemporary work on the program, Mi Pequeñito Sueño by Omar Román de Jesús. From start to finish, Mi Pequeñito Sueño felt charged and full of abandon. Formally, it was like a marriage of ballet and Dance Theater. And like any Dance Theater composition, repetition abounded, particularly in parallel jumps. As the performers rebounded over and over again on the stage’s surface, the desire for levity and suspension rang true. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Post:Ballet - "Waltz of the Snowflakes"

Post:Ballet in Waltz of the Snowflakes
Photo Ben Tarquin
Waltz of the Snowflakes (filmed adhering to all COVID-19 protocols and safety measures)
Streaming currently on YouTube

It’s no secret that the part of Nutcracker I most look forward to is the Snow Scene. The choreography, the costumes, the circular Tchaikovsky score, the effects – I love all of it. So I was beyond excited to learn that the artists of Post:Ballet had recently collaborated on a new film featuring this transcendent chapter. Choreographed by Artistic Director Robert Dekkers with cinematography by Ben Tarquin of YAKfilms, Waltz of the Snowflakes highlights the power of contrast and reminds its audience that this unprecedented year is no match for the pure joy of movement.

The seven minute dance short’s visuals provide numerous points of delicious contrast. First, the setting. Dekkers and Tarquin opted to place the ethereal, dreamlike sequence amidst an industrial park space – the float-y, fluttering movement meeting a Brutalist backdrop. Such a striking match of opposites. Waltz of the Snowflakes also facilitated an unexpected meeting of the seasons. While I can’t be sure of the temperature the day the piece was filmed, the sky was crystal clear and the sun soaked every angle, creating beautiful shadows of the wintry precipitation on the cement. Contrast also played beautifully into the choreography. Contemporary ballet vocabulary was definitely a throughline, but as the music crescendoed, the movement similarly took on a new quality and intention. What began as softer, wispier motions grew with urgency until arms swung frenetically through the air and bodies turned and contracted sharply. 

The dancers were all in from start to finish, seemingly unaffected by the non-traditional stage surface, or that their feathery tulle skirts needed to be paired with facemasks and tennis shoes. Every moment was full out and undeniably buoyant – lilting balancés, soaring attitude turns and pirouettes, huge jetés and crisp temps leveé. The stage architecture that Dekkers created for these dancers to traverse was quite something. Waltz of the Snowflakes’ aerial views revealed this gorgeous patterning, as the dancers weaved in and out like a quiet winter snowfall. And there was a very special treat when the cast came together to form a heart shape – it felt like the dance community was sending a message of love and peace to the world. 

Check out Waltz of the Snowflakes at:


Post:Ballet in Waltz of the Snowflakes
Photo Ben Tarquin

Monday, December 14, 2020

San Francisco Ballet - "Nutcracker"

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet
Streamed online Nov 27th-Dec 31st

For many Bay Area dance fans, the yearly sojourn to the War Memorial Opera House for San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is a cherished tradition. And it’s not just about the performance. Getting dressed up in festive finery, taking in the mélange of glittery ornaments in the lobby, watching the “snow” fall from the outdoor balcony. This year that tradition won’t happen. At least not in person.

But San Francisco Ballet wasn’t about to let a December pass without the classic holiday ballet. Instead of a live theatrical format, they have created a holistic Nutcracker experience for folks to enjoy virtually through December 31st. Not only does this include a complete performance from the SFB archives, but also a plethora of Nutcracker-related activities for the whole family. It may be the first year since 1944 that SFB has been unable to stage a live Nutcracker, but they have gone to the nth degree to ensure that the two-Act narrative is still a part of 2020’s holiday season.

For me, it took a little trouble-shooting to get the performance going (they have a whole page on their website with helpful tech tips), but once I had adjusted a few settings on my end, the ballet’s various scenes went off without a hitch: the Stahlbaum living room, the mouse/soldier battle, Clara and the Nutcracker’s joyful pas de deux, the snow-laden forest and Act II’s Crystal Palace, which in many versions is referred to as the Land of the Sweets. The production that was chosen for this event represented SFB’s current version of Nutcracker, choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, though it was a little surprising that it was from back in 2007, thirteen years ago. Having said that, it was fun to see some favorite dancers that have since retired or moved onto other opportunities. And to see some of SFB’s current principals and soloists at earlier points in their career – as students or as part of the corps de ballet.

Nutcracker is available online through the end of the year – visit for more details.