Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet is Unrestrained Joy

12/13/2019

December 13, 2019—Now in its 25th year, Smuin Ballet's The Christmas Ballet has become a treasured experience as well as a tradition. This season Smuin has performed The Christmas Ballet in Walnut Creek and Mountain View; last night was opening night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Tess Lane. Photo by Chris Hardy.
Tess Lane. Photo by Chris Hardy.

What has set The Christmas Ballet apart from other seasonal holiday performances is the contrast of its two acts. The Classical Christmas first opens with projections of slides of Medieval choir scenes projected on a scrim. The dancers are costumed in white, dancing to traditional European tunes and classical music by Bach, Mozart, and Handel. A highlight is Michael Smuin's step-dancing piece set to the traditional English carol "Wassail". A comical piece set to traditional Jewish klezmer music is a nod to Hannukah. The women's costumes change slightly to suit each specific dance, from flowing white skirts, to tutus, to tights, pointe shoes to tap or step shoes. The affect is beautiful, fun, and uplifting.

The Cool Christmas second act opens with projections of children's drawings. The dancers wear versions of red costumes in a fun medley of modern numbers, including premieres of a pas de deux set to "Silver Bells" by former Smuin artist Rex Wheeler and a tap dance to "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" choreographed by Smuin dancer Tessa Barbour.

The repertoire of The Christmas Ballet changes a little from year to year. Regular attendees delight in seeing their favorite pieces performed, while a few new pieces are included every year. For seasoned veterans of previous performances, part of the pleasure is vicariously re-experiencing the surprised reactions to their favorite pieces by those in the audience who are seeing The Christmas Ballet for the fist time. This season's new works include pieces by Smuin's Ballet Master Amy London set to the traditional German folk song "Still, Still, Still."

Smuin dancers in Still, Still, Still. Photo credit: Chris Hardy
Smuin dancers in Still, Still, Still. Photo credit: Chris Hardy

The second act's "Blue Christmas" includes an Elvis-inspired crooner surrounded by adoring female fans, the Latin-inspired "La Calandria," and a fun bobby sock dance to a recording of "Winter Weather" performed by 40's stars Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. And you haven't lived until you've seen the tap dancing Christmas trees in "Droopy Little Christmas Tree." Absent this year from the second act was the comical surfer. Let's hope he returns in the future.

Tessa Barbour in Christmas Tree Rock. Photo credit: Keith Sutter
Tessa Barbour in Christmas Tree Rock. Photo credit: Keith Sutter

But the special favorite is Smuin's "Santa Baby", featuring a 41 foot long feather boa. Danced by Terez Dean Orr with men of the Company to the iconic Eartha Kitt song, a materialistic vamp sings of her wish list of expensive gifts she expects from Santa, while surrounded by men trying to please her. A hilarious highlight of this piece is when she lies on top of the prostrate men, who roll in unison across the floor to propel her along the stage. Orr is fun to watch, but she lack the vampishness of some previous dancers in this role.

Terez Dean Orr in Santa Baby. Photo credit: Chris Hardy
Terez Dean Orr in Santa Baby. Photo credit: Chris Hardy

What made last night's The Christmas Ballet especially enjoyable was the evident unrestrained and infectious joy of the dancers. Case in point: it was a rainy night, so many in the audience had umbrellas. When artificial snow began falling on the audience, one quick-thinking man in orchestra front popped up his bumble bee umbrella, to instant laughs and applause. The peformance closes with the dancers frolicking and cavorting amid the falling snow, doing grand jétes and back flips. They were having the time of their lives, and they were more than happy to share it with the audience.

Tessa Barbour. Photo credit: Chris Hardy
Tessa Barbour. Photo credit: Chris Hardy

Smuin's Christmas Ballet is performing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through December 23.