Smuin Sizzles with "The Christmas Ballet"
The Smuin Christmas Ballet Experience
By Marilyn Bardet
For sheer entertainment and nostalgia, Smuin Ballet’s Christmas Ballet, www.smuinballet.org, recently performed at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center, www.lesherartscenter.org, lived up to its 15-year Bay Area reputation as a not-to-be-missed Advent opener. Now in performance around the region through Dec. 24th, this show’s just the ticket to lift a tired spirit; or, if you’re already jolly, it could put powdered sugar on your pecan pie.
Designed to easily please, The Christmas Ballet, (YouTube - Christmas Ballet Highlights; YouTube - Smuin Ballet's The Christmas Ballet, www.youtube.com) presents thirty-two short pieces, set to favorite Christmas music spanning centuries to the present, that display classic to contemporary dance idioms, including tap. By turns elegant, sizzling, sassy, funny, sexy and sentimental (as promotions claim), this winter merry-maker showcases the Smuin’s stylistic versatility and dancers’ fluency to celebrate the season and dance itself. In its athletic verve and technical precision, the company’s dancing feels vibrantly alive, as does the indomitable spirit of the Christmas Ballet’s creator and the company’s founding director, the late Michael Smuin — the award-winning choreographer, who for a long stretch co-directed the San Francisco Ballet and also danced and choreographed for the American Ballet Theater. And although the program doesn’t offer an opportune occasion to experience the depth of the troupe’s artistry, the production’s current version includes five numbers by resident choreographer, Amy Seiwert, whose other inventions for Smuin are stunners. (YouTube - Amy Seiwert Choreography, YouTube - Star Shadows.)
The program is divided into two contrasting acts, The Classical Christmas and The Cool Christmas. In the first, everything is white: tutus, toe shoes, tunics and tights, with airy chiffon hung at intervals, ceiling to floor, to suggest a dreamy ballroom; in the second, red and black costuming, and rows of bric-a-brac fringes with big, fluffy “snowballs” dangling from above, convey the pizzazz of popular theater. A vaguely Vegas atmosphere pervades both acts, an association appropriate to a glissando-like trip through an eclectic array of dance entertainments.
Act One offers cameo-like “classics” suggesting pageants and celebrations, the season’s spirit captured first by the full company’s joyous rendering of Bach’s Magnificat, followed by varied ensemble and solo dances’ impressionistic renderings of Medieval and Renaissance traditional carols, choral parts of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, music by Prokofiev, for Sleigh Ride, and Leonard Bernstein’s Carol of the Bells.
Act Two presents the hoopla, burlesque and romantic “look-backs” that embody American Christmas, as dished by Broadway and Hollywood, with regional flavoring: Christmas in New Orleans; Blue Christmas with Elvis; Christmas Island, with hula-skirted girls. Recordings by 20th century greats – Louis Armstrong, Eartha Kitt, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles help paint the town.
Despite their classy/cool contrasts, both acts share what all dance has in common — abstract, dimensional form-in-motion, lines drawn in time of awe-inspiring, sensuous expression: this, when a dancer floats through the air in a pas de deux, her partner landing her to pirouette on point; and when a hot red Rockette type pivots on spike heels to throw herself onto a phalanx of suitors in Santa Baby.
Watching lithe, sinuous dancers, most of us realize we’ll never pirouette or hurl ourselves up into someone’s arms, except in dream. The world of ballet is dream made real, a parallel universe where gravity seemingly gives way, the body’s powerful, expressive nature seen triumphant in complicated and dangerous lifts, daring leaps, extraordinarily refined articulations of torso, neck, arms, hands, legs and feet, and supple extensions from head to finger tips to toes. Wherein lies extraordinary magic.
And while classical ballet’s regal “moves,” when performed with seeming effortlessness, are said to invoke eternal human aspirations — and by their grace to display the body as temple and template of the divine — the 20th century’s freer dance idioms and contemporary inventions cultivate a more profane, sometimes crazed version of... well, the very same yearning, which is at the core of all artistic creation, and hence, artifice.
Whether a famous lovelorn prince is diving in after his swan, or Fred Astaire is nimbly dancing up stairs toward a star in a classic 40‘s re-run, we are enchanted by such physical genius, believing, in moments of penetrating consciousness, that we become them.
Most affecting was the performance by Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Jonathan Powell in Act Two’s Baby It’s Cold Outside, a wonderful Frank Loesser song from 1944, recorded by Ray Charles and Betty Carter. Things quickly evolve when “Baby” protests too much, “I really can’t stay,” while her man keeps pressing, “...but Baby, it’s cold outside, mind if I move a little closer?” The pair’s steamy repartee delivers not just the explicit emotions of their dancing’s back-‘n-forth, but also those ineffable feelings that artistry of high caliber calls forth when the choreography, dancers and music make a seamless match. Under such fortuitous conditions, a viewer may experience dance’s fourth dimension, entered and recognized by a slowing of movements, in rubato, or “stolen time” barely perceivable, such as at the maximum arc of a leap or in discreet interruptions of the flow of motions, when a next move anticipated feels held back, and Time itself appears “lost” in all its subjectivity, as when Baby and her beau abandon themselves to a moment. Existing for an instant, these intimations of eternity are like body quarks: hard to capture corollaries of the percussive beats that otherwise marshal music and the dancer.
Another kind of timelessness was presented in an angst-ridden dance, choreographed brilliantly by Amy Seiwert, which set Susan Roemer spinning flatfootedly alone, petitioning the air of an empty room to the recording by Aaron Neville of Please Come Home For Christmas. Her angled, only slightly histrionic interpretation reminding me of the women – and families – who right now, as down through the ages, want their soldier boys to come home. The Christmas Ballet is more surface than depth, more glitter than gem. But at the end, when the entire company creates yesteryear’s slow-time atmospherics to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, it’s clearly haunting. The dream’s voice, like Memory’s magus, wraps the last line’s slowing cadence, “May- all- your- Chri-istmas-es be- whi-i-i-te!”, as shimmering “snow” flutters down from the “sky” to be scooped up and festively tossed — the stage like a snow-globe overturned, as if a child had shaken it, not simply to see it snow, but to imagine the disappearance in motion. Finally rising from her seat to lumber out with the crowd, this mortal was glad for the memory of snow gently fallen inside, which seemed more than fitting.
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