Those who follow dance have known all along, but Smuin Ballet offers up an alternative to seasonal entertainment. This might be especially appealing if you’ve OD-ed on Nutcrackers, Messiahs, and Scrooges. Smuin’s two act “Christmas Ballet” celebrates its 21st anniversary on Bay Area stages.
Act I, dubbed “Classical Christmas,” presents 14 short dances, including “The Gloucestershire Wassail” and “Ave Maria,” two classics created by the late Michael Smuin, as well as a new work, “Joy to the World,” choreographed by Smuin dancer Nicole Haskins. With dancers costumed in white, “Classical Christmas” aimed for elegance, opening with dreamy stars in the background to the “Magnificat.”
While uneven, Act I brought some unexpected delights, most notably Noel Nouvelet performed by Erin Yarbrough-Powell & Jonathan Powell. Yarbrough-Powell’s clean energy was noted in reviews of the balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet, which she and Powell performed earlier this year. The couple moved together well, infusing Noel Nouvelet with a measured grace. A choreographer friend remarked that Yarbrough-Powell’s exquisite feet bested anything else that evening.
Although nowhere near the elegance of Noel Nouvelet, Veni Veni Emmanuel was nonetheless interesting to watch, albeit for the opposite reasons. Veni, Veni drew me in because of its simplicity. Small gestures performed by the women of the company had a hypnotic quality. Small shifts in weight changed the orientation of the dancers’ bodies, an effect that became magnified when performed simultaneously by a single line of women holding hands. While uneven spacing between the dancers detracted slightly, this flaw disappeared when the group split in two.
The tone shifted when “Classical Christmas” morphed into “Cool Christmas” in Act II. Dancers shed classical white for vibrant red, and music shifted from reverent to kitsch, with numbers like Santa Baby and Blue Christmas.
The catch here is that Christmas kitsch is hard to pull off, if only because so much Christmas entertainment is already so kitschy. Act II was strongest when Smuin went full kitsch, as they did with Frosty the Snow Man, performed by Weston Krukow and company dancers tricked out in black trench coats, and Jingle Bells Mambo, danced by Mengjun Chen, Weston Krukow, & Ben Needham-Wood. Red circles on stage drapes that looked suspiciously like Target ads were topped by blue martini glasses to complete someone’s vision of Christmas in a space-age bachelor pad.
These numbers aside, “Christmas Ballet” felt dated. “So ‘90s,” remarked my friend, about Act I – and the aforementioned numbers aside, the same is true for Act II’s attempt to go retro. While short numbers work well with holiday audiences who might not see much dance throughout the year, their sameness made it feel a bit like a school show. If you’re not into seasonal entertainment, Smuin’s 2016 Choreography Showcase, at ODC in January, might offer a better chance to see their considerable talent on display.
Photo credit: Chris Hardy