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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Smuin Ballet Production of
The Christmas Ballet Brings a Holiday Spirit

Also see Richard's review of The Man Who Came to Dinner

The Christmas Ballet
Roberto Cisneros with company members
The annual Smuin Ballet Production of The Christmas Ballet has become an important holiday tradition here in the City by the Bay. It is as famous as the San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker or the American Conservatory Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. Choreographer Michael Smuin celebrates a decade of magnificent eclectic dance with ballet, tap, swing, jazz and pop in the 2004 edition of this festive treat. This year, the choreographer provides some new additions to music set by The Chieftains in the modern section and a beautiful ballet sequence to a section of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah in the first part of the program.

Michael Smuin has done it all, including winning a Tony for choreographing Anything Goes on Broadway, working on the dance numbers for the London production of Mack and Mabel and contributing to films from Cotton Club to Return of the Jedi, Special Edition. He also served as co-director of the San Francisco Ballet from 1973-1985. This outstanding individual has showbiz savvy when it comes to putting on ballet for the masses. Smuin has gathered around him a splendid core of dancers who are more individual artists than the typical corp de ballet one sees in classical productions.

Smuin has revised and revamped once again, dividing the program into “The Classical Christmas” as act one and, after a brief intermission, “A Cool Christmas.” Act one opens with the thrilling sounds of J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” on a top grade sound system with large slides of Renaissance paintings. Suddenly, the screen rises and the company, dressed in white, performs an exquisite dance to the Bach’s music. “The Classical Christmas” consists of dances to the music of Mozart, Handel, Palestrina and Corelli. There are dances that are ethereal, such as the company movements to the traditional “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” or “Gloria” from Mozart’s “Mass of C Minor.” Shannon Hurlburt, David Strobbe and Pedro Gamino are outstanding in the latter. Most of the dancers stay on a modern day line with some interesting partnering. There are some outstanding moments in the first act with the prima ballerina Celia Fushille-Burke dancing so smoothly in “Zither Carol.”

Fifteen-year-old Roberto Cisneros brings down the house with the traditional “Virgin Mary Had a Baby Child.” This marks the talented young man's last season with the Smuin as he moves on to the American Ballet Theatre. The traditional “Gloucestershire Wassail,” with a trio of paired dancers, is always fascinating to watch as groups of dancers jollily hop around the stage with a festive air. Smuin has reinstated the very popular “Licht Bensh’n (Candle Blessing)” to time-honored klezmer music with Celia Fushille-Burke dancing alone to a steaming clarinet, and then suddenly a quartet of yeshiva students comes out with their masculine bravado dancing a hora around her. The splendid new edition of the first act, set to Handel’s “Messiah,” is beautifully danced by Erin Yarbrough, James Strong and company.

Smuin’s crowd pleaser is always the second half of the program, which is a series of vignette dances to the music of modern day composers and singers. The songs are provided by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt and The Chieftains. Shannon Hurlburt once again captivates the audience with his solo to “Little Drummer Boy” and brings down the house with the newly added “The Bells of Dublin” with music by The Chieftains during which he outdoes Riverdance. This is closely followed by six of the group doing a part Riverdance/part modern ballet to The Chieftains' “Bells of Blackville.”

The ballet company standbys are still there, with Celia Fushille-Burke and her magnificent legs, sexy as ever, in “Santa Baby” and seductive in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in which she is paired with James Strong. “Frosty the Snowman” (Pedro Famino) still tap dances in his bulky outfit and the mirthful “Christmas Island,” with a surfer and one smart shark, is still in the repertoire.

The company has added a swinging arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Jingle Bells” with the whole company and twenty young dancers from the City Ballet School ranging from six years old upwards. The whole company gets into the groove with this jazzy arrangement. Also new is a delightful surprise before the opening of the second act. The charming young Luna Trio entertains the audience with a very short recital. Doori Na on violin, Tessa Seymore on cello and Mayumi Tsuchida on piano are absolutely delightful.

The Christmas Ballet is at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Theatre Building, 700 Howard Street (between Third and Fourth Street) San Francisco through December 26th. For tickets call 415-978-2787 For more information please go to www.smuinballet.org.

Watch for the ballet company’s west coast premiere of Eliot Feld’s Pacific Dances, along with the popular Frankie and Johnny on May 6 – 15, 2005.


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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