According to Smuin’s artistic director, Celia Fushille, it’s been 21 months since the ballet company’s last live performance. That was in March, 2020 when Covid began to cast its spell. Their current brilliant performance of The Christmas Ballet was like the journeys of heroes and heroines. An unusual event prompts them to leave home and enter a dark realm. They go through difficult struggles and return with a gift to the community. In the same way, after the Covid closure Smuin performed at a dramatically expanded creative and artistic level .
I’ve closely followed the company for nearly a decade. The present show is a more richly integrated and complex grouping of Smuin’s Classical and Modern works than any I’ve seen before. Each piece is like a Christmas card with themes ranging from the deeply sacred to the humorous.
Their new assemblage of imagery, sound and audience involvement conveyed the majesty and holiness of the season when the light returns to end the the darkest days of winter. Winter in the heart was relieved as well with the end of Covid restrictions.
Act I: The Classical Christmas opened with a dazzling mixed media display of Baroque art showing the heavenly theme of angels. The set opens and closes with the company adorned in regally colored capes over all white costumes. The dancers perform to reverential music such as in Zither Carol, Excelsis, and Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, establishing a sense of the divine.
The themes varied. The Gloucestershire Wassail was English with hints of Irish dance, featuring upbeat banjo music. Traditional Jewish music is the backdrop for Dobra Notsch “Sleep Well.” With its reference to the history of the Jews, this was the most moving dance of the performance to me.
The act closes with an energetic version of Joy to the World.
Act 2: The second half opened with a stirring mixed media display of children’s brightly colored Christmas themed art. The images by-passed the more critical faculties of adult thought processes and instead made direct contact wth the inner child lurking within each audience goer. The thrilling excitement held in the psyche of early Santa Claus anticipation was evoked and experienced. This set the mind’s in-dwelling stage to receive the fantastical dances which followed next.
The Cool Christmas is a bevy of delightful jazzy, funny, sexy and wildly creative dance arts. In Christmas in New Orleans the dancers were adorned in straw hats, highlighting their slow, undulating, yet precise movements. Their maneuvers captured the essence of warmer climates in which physical movements are restrained to save energy. As usual with Smuin Ballet, the dance has far more to say symbolically than the beautiful motions considered alone.
Drummer Boy is an especially striking work because of the use of drum sticks that sparkle and twirl rapidly to punctuate and accentuate the dance. The accompanying Lou Rawls recording brings forth the soul energy of Christmas season.
Pretty Paper also made artful use of props – rotating blue ribbons accentuate the dance and are an integral part of it. They remind us that Christmas gift wrappings are yet another way that light and vigor are brought into the darkest time of the year.
Comedy lit the performance in Droopy Little Christmas Tree. A misshapen tree moved according to its own inner direction, creating disrespectful mayhem among the unsuspecting dancers. Costuming was fabulous for both tree and dancers. Even with its hilarity, the work underscores the vitally important role of the tree for eventual transformation in many fairy tales. During the shifting of the seasons, change is the most important element. It brought to mind the work of puppeteer Christopher Wheeldon whose choreographing of the Cinderella Ballet also featured a phenomenal tree.
In the Mexican solo, La Calandria, sung by Linda Ronstadt, the universality of seasonal celebration across cultures was recognized. Peoples across many lands are pulled to recognize the power of the soon to be returning light.
The comedic White Christmas was a fantastic climax to a phenomenal show. The snow falling on the stage expanded to cover the entire audience. As Feliz Navidad brought the Ballet to a close, everyone fortunate enough to be involved – whether as audience or performer – was given a happier Christmas.
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