Joy to the stage: Smuin Ballet's 'The Christmas Ballet' is a tradition worth keeping

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Smuin Ballet dancers Nicole Haskins and Weston Krukow in Amy Seiwert's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."
Photo by David Allen

Smuin Ballet's The Christmas Ballet, which the late choreographer Michael Smuin premiered in 1995, has earned its spot among the myriad of Bay Area holiday entertainments. This year's opening night at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — performances run through Dec. 28 — was packed with a casually dressed yet festive crowd of all ages, including grandparents with their elementary school age charges. (Gratefully absent were the toddlers that flood ballet performances). It was probably the most diverse and receptive audience an evening of ballet can muster these days.

And why not. The late choreographer knew how to entertain a crowd. With this take on the holidays he created a flexible show that changes a little bit every year as new material gets added and some of it is shelved for the time being. Christmas shows Smuin at his best — a broad-based love for music, an excellent sense of how to communicate through dance, and at his not so good —an unwillingness or inability to dig below the surface. Here he offered a mostly well-grown evergreen of what the holidays represent: kitsch and grandeur, sentimentality and sentiment, conviviality and loneliness, all wrapped up in tinsel-covered package.

The ballet is divided into two parts, "Classical Christmas," with a frontispiece of Renaissance angel musicians blowing away their heavenly songs; the after-intermission introduces "Cool Christmas" with Louis Armstrong's inimitable reciting of 'Twas the Night before Christmas, which runs over grade school kids' illustrations of the poem, including one which disputes the fact that "not even a mouse" was stirring.

The first part's highlights from great and classical music works remain problematic. These are the sections in which the music has to carry the communicative weight because the choreography too often slithers over the top of the scores. Still, to see Smuin's men soar in flying jetés and the women kick their legs to the beginning of Bach's Magnificat suggested what could have been.

When he let himself be guided by simplicity Smuin's choreography often beguiles. The calm walking patterns for Veni, Veni Emmanuel that evolved into a garland dance grew out of the music's longing. New company member Eduardo Permuy did his best to convey La Virgen Lava Panãles' lilting poignancy, in which nature jubilates while the virgin washes diapers. Another newish dancer, Nicole Haskins, who stood out every time she was on stage, phrased the Zither Carol every so musically.

Also lovely to watch was the gently celebratory Gloucester Wassail, which echoed folk dance traditions. Robert Dekkers' The Bells, an intricately structured and high-spirited sextet, became a welcome addition this year.

For "Cool Christmas," the pointe shoes came off, and everybody went to town. The post-intermission segment is filled with popular music: Willie Nelson, Irving Berlin, the Chieftains, Eartha Kitt, and Elvis Presley — where Smuin was most comfortably at home. He also had a special touch with ballads. Blue Christmas, with a pelvis-rolling and grinning Jonathan Dummar plus a bevy of teeny boppers, was on the dot. So were, on a much softer note, Erin Yarbrough and Ben Needham Wood, who turned a ribbon into a cat's cradle as they wooed each other in Pretty Paper. Twirling his drumsticks ever more expertly, Wood built Drummer Boy into something more expressive than sheer technical expertise.

Popular music has also inspired some non-Smuin additions from previous years. Robert Sund's jazz-based trio Winter Wonderland (Erica Chipp, Haskin and Yarbrough) still looks fresh. Val Caniparoli's Jingle Bells Mambo was performed lustily by Aidan DeYoung, Weston Krukow, and Jonathan Powell. And Amy Seiwert's new, full-company I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm — a romp involving headgear (among other things) — is sure to join the list of perennial favorites.

Still, there are super favorites. Santa Baby, with its oversized boa, was back, but unless the company finds another dancer of Celia Fushille's sophistication and wit — not to speak of her legs — it might have to be shelved. Shannon Hurlburt, Dummar, and Powell tap-danced through the sad-sack Droopy Little Christmas Tree, which finally hit the dust. Hurlburt also returned in his tap shoes for Bells of Dublin, which he premiered brilliantly quite a few years ago.

Some other numbers work because of how well these dancers realize slapstick. To watch Krukow wobble on that surfboard like a country hick on a Hawaiian vacation in Christmas Island is enough to make you fall in love with every failed body builder. But perhaps the most heartwarming solo in "Cool Christmas" — because you both laugh at and want to embrace her — is Terez Dean in Seiwert's furiously stomping, yet ever so lonely, Please Come Home for Christmas. Even if you don't like the holidays, "The Christmas Ballet" is worth seeing. And it just might change your anti-Yule attitude to boot.

"XXmas: The Christmas Ballet, 2013 Edition"
Tonight and Sat/21, 8pm (also Sat/21, 2pm); Sun/22, 2 and 7pm; Tue/24, 2pm; Dec 26-28, 8pm (also Dec 26, 2pm), $24-64
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Lam Research Theater
700 Howard, SF
www.smuinballet.org

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