The Smuin Take on Christmas

23 Dec

Dan Henry and I attended the December 21st evening performance of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s two-part Christmas Celebration; historical European folk and baroque and U.S.A.’s contemporary with touches of cultural diversity. Dan, a former couples partner in the Ice Capades and Pilates instructor at the Buchanan Street Y reflects why the annual production draws capacity crowds in its almost two week run at Yerba Buena’s Theater.

“It’s classically based, but doesn’t neglect today’s society and it avoids being crass. Yes, it’s popular, but how many choreographers can do popular well, make it interesting and entertaining at the same time? Not many, that’s for sure.” This, from an avid reader of many things serious or arcane, is distinct praise, leaving me up to pick or praise spots and solo performers and to add that Michael often ended with a deft accent.

Smuin’s canny qualities are evident in the scrims and slides before the dancing commences; the soaring, celebratory angels, horns and pipes selected from Renaissance and Baroque Paintings; before the second act, children’s drawings about the Christmas tales of Santa, the tree, the raindeer, augmented by the wonderful growly tones of Louis Armstrong. Both curtain risers set the mood, wooing the audience for what is to come.

After marking the casting I turned to the dancers’ bios. We missed Shannon Hulburt who comes in for cameo tap performances of The Bells of Dublin, here rendered competently by Tessa Barbour, remaining one of the highlights of post-intermission.

With 2003 veteran Erin Yarbrough-Powell out on maternity leave that makes Terez Dean Orr the company veteran since her arrival in 2008, followed by Ben Needham-Wood in 2013 and dancing his final season with the company. Mengjun Chen joined in 2015, leaving five dancers joining in 2018 with an additional five in 2019 out of the sixteen.  Kaila Feldpausch is guest artist, and a decent cultural mix is reflected with the men. The costumes were uniformly white, gauzy short skirts on the women with a tad of silver glitter. In the second, the hue mainly was Holiday Red.

Before the curtain rose, Celia Fushile proudly announced the company’s new home and in January some company dancers would be teaching beginning and intermediate classes. A new note was the sponsorship of various numbers in both acts by individuals. In Act I four of sixteen dances were created by women. In Act II five choreographers were represented in the fifteen dances; of that five, three were women.

The company’s opening burst, Magnificat, sees them back to the audience, the women with impossibly long capes, light bright hues; turning, they sweep around with same before doffing them; lots of jetes in tune to the declamatory tone of the music. Mengjun Chen was responsible for the most crisply delivered; the scheduled solo spots, assigned to others, left me wanting to see more.  I had seen him compete at the Jackson USA IBC; seeing such artists progress is a continuing interest.

At least two selections derive from Smuin’s SFBallet work to Mozart’s Mass in B Minor; Domine and Gratias, the latter danced with Terez Dean Orr, Ian Buchanan and Ben Needham-Wood. The trio understood the mood. Alas, as danced by Cassidy Isaacson and Maggie Carey, the somber tones of Domine were imperfectly reflected: one wore a fixed smile, worthy of a frothy tutu, while the second understood the music’s import.

The selections proceeded from classical base to pleasant, appropriate seasonal music, such as the La Virgen Lava Panales and the Gloucestershire Wassail, winding up with Klesmer tunes, flirtation and romance.

After Intermission and Satchmo’s growling rendition of The Night Before, Christmas in New Orleans and Santa Baby delivered their pleasant secularisms.
Ben Needham-Wood delivered an expert Drummer Boy after Max van der Sterre echoed the pelvic emphasis of Elvis to the delight of several blonde-wigged fans in Blue Christmas. With a swooping ruana and oversized hat, La Calandria was rendered with energy and elan by Lauren Pschirrer as she discarded hat, then ruana to display black body suit and excellent musical response.

Another longtime favorite, Droopy Little Christmas Tree preceded Val Caniparoli’s Jingle Bells Mambo danced by Ben Needham-Wood, Joao Sampaio and Max van der Sterre. Silver Bells, Christmas Tree Rock, Bells of Dublin, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year preceded White Christmas with the company strolling, dancing a little and then flinging stage snow as similar white drifted down on two center orchestra spots.

A pitch was made for donations, and the company tossed more snow as the curtain lowered.

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