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Smuin Ballet - 'The Christmas Ballet'

'Christmas' is a holiday ballet treat

by Mary Ellen Hunt

December 21, 2002 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Frazzled holiday frenzy victims take note: If you need a little cheering up, and the "Nutcracker" isn't going to do it for you, check out Smuin Ballet's "The Christmas Ballet 2002," which continues through Dec. 29 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Now in its eighth year, this bright two-part evening, choreographed almost entirely by artistic director Michael Smuin, is filled with moments of contagious holiday merriment.

The first half of the program, the "Classical Christmas," features works of a more traditionally balletic sort, with lovely pas de deux and solos interspersed with ensemble work set to traditional carols, as well as music by Bach, Corelli, Mozart and Palestrina.

The company mainly displays a reserved tone at the start of the "Classical Christmas," although Amy Seiwert's smile adds an engaging glow. She takes palpable delight in the lightened jumps and speed made possible by Easton Smith's easy partnering in "Hodie Christus Natus Est."

The three couples, led by graceful Sarah Barber-Wilson and David Strobbe in "The Gloucester Wassail," have that kind of sunny animation, as does the quartet of men who flirt with Celia Fushille-Burke in the klezmer "Licht Bensh'n."

This year, "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy" features talented 14-year-old Roberto Cisneros in the role created by Hernan Piquin. One of the unusual pleasures for Smuin Ballet's audiences is that they've been able to watch the youthful but very professional Cisneros grow better each year. In this particular piece, he demonstrates not only a honed stage presence but a fine technique that would be remarkable in men twice his age.

Cisneros also appears in a couple of roles in the jazzy "Cool Christmas" after intermission. He'll dance "The Little Drummer Boy" for some of the performances, and the diverting "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" duet with Shannon Hurlburt (who also choreographed), giving him a chance to show off his tapping skills, too. Hurlburt is, for his part, an expert tapper, and his turn in "The Bells of Dublin" never fails to bring the house down.

The whole company is more relaxed and lighthearted when they return for the "Cool Christmas," and this is where Smuin gets down to the business of enthusiastically entertaining. When the curtain goes up on the couples dressed in red-hot costumes for Louis Armstrong's "Christmas in New Orleans," it signals the shift to sultry silliness.

Each year, he changes the program slightly, but a perennial favorite duet is "Baby, It's Cold Outside." In Smuinland, the men are manly, and the women are sexy. True to their roles, Fushille-Burke and Smith add to this duet an Astaire-Rogers romance that makes you want to go right home and snuggle up with your honey in front of a fire.

At Thursday's opening, there were some unscheduled hijinks in "Hula Christmas," when Strobbe came out in the hula-girl trio, attired hilariously in a grass skirt, a decorated bikini top and hiking boots. He managed the whole routine with a perfectly straight face and such nice, serene port de bras that he'd better be careful, or he'll be doing that number for the rest of the run.

After the snowy ending of "White Christmas" was an extra treat, as Dee Spencer led the impressive SF Jazz All-Star High School Ensemble swinging in a few more Christmas tunes for that last bit of mood.

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This review first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

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