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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Michael Smuin's Ballet Company
The Christmas Ballet

Also see Richard's review of It Had to Be You

San Francisco has three major holiday attractions each year: the American Conservatory Theatre production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the San Francisco Ballet Company production of The Nutcracker and the annual Christmas favorite, Smuin Ballet's production of The Christmas Ballet. This ninth annual treat is currently playing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through December 28th.

Tony and Emmy winning director/choreographer Michael Smuin started this company in 1994 to present a combination of classical ballet and Broadway musical. The Christmas Ballet was first presented in 1995 and it was an instant success, becoming the alternative to The Nutcracker in the city. The audiences are drawn to the artistry and pizzazz of this production.

Smuin's company features young, energetic dancers performing the choreographer's particular style of dance that is part classical, part contemporary, with innovative partnering. The Christmas Ballet is divided in two acts. The first act is "The Classical Christmas," in which the talented group appear all in white. They dance to a series of pieces of music from Bach, Corelli, Palestrina, Mozart and traditional carols. The lovely, free-moving dancers dance to "The Gloucestershire Wassail," based on traditional English Christmas melodies. They almost float across the stage like the fishing boats of the Gloucester seafarers. Outstanding is 15 year old Roberto Cisneros dancing to traditional music in "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy." His dancing and wonderful smile radiate over the whole stage. This is a performer to watch; he has a solid technique and the confidence to make a great dancer. Other standout performances in this act are the wonderful Celia Fushille-Burke in "Veni, Veni, Emanuel," with Christmas music traditional to 15th Century France, and Amy Seiwert and Lee Bell's beautiful pas de duex to Palestrina's "Hodie Christus Natus Est."

Mr. Showbiz Michael Smuin throws out all the stops in the second act, which is called "The Cool Christmas" and contains tap dancing Christmas trees, undulating hula girls in a silly scene that also has a shark and muscular dancer on a surfboard, a Lindy hop and a little mambo to the strains of The Heptones singing "Christmas Island." There is a vignette that looks likes a combination of Sweet Charity and Cabaret with a "Swan Lake" ballerina who apparently gets lost and is dancing in the wrong scene.

Smuin BalletShannon Hurlburt is amazing in "Riverdance" to the stains of The Chieftains singing the "Bells of Dublin". Another highlight is Roberto Cisneros dancing to Lou Rawls' recording of "Little Drummer Boy." Frosty the Snowman rolls about on the stage in several sections. Once again, leggy Celia Fushille-Burke struts onto the stage wearing what Smuin calls "the longest feather boa in theater history," dancing the sort of sexy dance that Cyd Charisse would do in an MGM musical to the sensuous voice of Eartha Kitt singing "Santa Baby." Celia makes you forget Cyd.

While there are some purists who insist that Smuin's populist choreography lowers the tone of San Francisco dance, many others (including myself) remain supremely unfazed by these elitist judgments. This is a wonderful way to spend the holidays, and the last scene with the cast dancing to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" with "snow" falling on the audience will get you into the spirit of the season.

The Christmas Ballet plays the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, Third Street between Mission and Howard, San Francisco through December 28. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-987-2787 or visit www.smuinballet.org.


Photo: Tom Hauck


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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