Party hardy

Pub date December 10, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

REVIEW Going to Smuin Ballet’s The Christmas Ballet feels like going to a big party. You’re glad to see some guests while others make you want to head for the door. Currently touring the Bay Area, the 15-year-old holiday extravaganza finishes its annual run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Dec. 17 to 28.

It’s easy to see why this two-part concoction of 30 numbers, divided into The Classical Christmas and The Cool Christmas, has become a holiday staple. If the late Michael Smuin was anything, he was an entertainer. It’s what he loved and it’s what he was good at, even if some of us believe he could have been more.

During its Dec. 4 performance at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, the company, now under the direction of Celia Fushille, showed itself in good shape. The 14 disciplined but free-spirited dancers injected the requisite sentiment and sass into choreography by Smuin and new additions by Amy Seiwert, Viktor Kabaniev, and Val Caniparoli. The Christmas Ballet lives by its musical choices. Smuin’s taste was far-reaching and inclusive: he loved pop as much as Bach, and his unabashed largesse enlivened the sometimes problematic choreography.

At its most objectionable, the choreography dips deep into the sentimental and skims the surface of great classical music as if it were whipped cream. But Smuin also knew when to step back. You can’t compete with "Veni Emanuel," or vocalists like Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. So he opted for simple strolling patterns, which became a theme weaving throughout the two hours. At its best The Christmas Ballet is unpretentious, musical, and witty.

Contrary to expectations, The Cool Christmas looked more dated than The Classical Christmas, which intersperses carols from around the world with selections from the symphonic repertoire. Cool‘s pop choices stopped at around 1980 — it could have used an injection of more contemporary fare. But don’t even think of touching Santa Baby.

The dancers were a joy to watch. Susan Roemer was lyrical, melodramatic, and super-vampy; Brooke Reynolds, dignified in some seriously convoluted partnering; Shannon Hurlbut, on the dot in his tapping; and Aaron Thayer, joyous and committed in everything he danced. As for Ted Keener’s Elvis, not quite, but he’ll get there.

SMUIN BALLET Dec. 17–20, 23, and 26–27, 8 p.m.; Dec. 20–21, 23–24, 26–28, 2 p.m.; Dec. 21, 7 p.m.; $18–$55. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF. (415) 495-2234,