- San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
- Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
December 17th – Opening night of last year’s Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet was special. The company was returning to their home theater, and I would bet that for many patrons, it was their first trip to a live performance in quite some time. Excitement and buzz seemed to levitate the room. A standing ovation closed the evening. As folks filed out of the opera house, one could sense the smiles beneath their masks. Former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s two-act ballet wasn’t just a holiday tradition that night, it was a community celebration.
2022’s Nutcracker was equally special, but in a very different way. Still festive, to be sure, but there was something else in the air. Normalcy. All the kids from the school were back onstage, in the party scene and as the tiny, little ladybugs at the opening of Act II. Many in the audience still opted for masks, but the mood in the seats was certainly less charged and more relaxed. Like the collective was recognizing a much-needed moment of repose, relief and joy.
Tomasson’s Nutcracker (2004) has a terrific sense of forward motion, which is especially appreciated in the parts of Act I that can tend to drag. Charm and revelry reign at the Stahlbaum Christmas Eve party, magic pervading the landscape. Clara (Piper O’Leary Herreras at this performance) receives an unforgettable present, a Nutcracker, and as midnight strikes, the figure comes to life. A battle ensues between mice, soldiers and the Nutcracker, and after declaring victory, the pair journey through a frozen forest to a palace of dance. When you’ve seen the same Nutcracker for many years, you forget how impressive the tricks, illusions and scenes truly are – the seven-year-old sitting next to me exclaimed several times, “how did they do that?” An excellent reminder of the level of production we were witnessing.
Instead of going on opening night, this year, I opted to take in one of the weekend matinees. In addition to the infectious kid energy at any afternoon performance, the other benefit is that the cast is more varied. In past years, opening night has tended to feature the same dancers, so it’s nice to see other interpretations of Nutcracker’s many roles. Standouts included Elizabeth Powell and Lonnie Weeks as Queen and King of the Snow as well as Jennifer Stahl as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tomasson’s choreography for the snow scene embodies winter weather in all its forms. Delicate and ethereal flurries expressed through lithe pas de chat; sharp and fierce blizzards through darting posé arabesque. Powell, Weeks and the snowflake corps captured every nuance. Stahl was the epitome of elegance, leading the flowers (whose costumes are getting a bit dated) through their famous waltz.
But by far, the standout couple was Esteban Hernández as the Nutcracker and Katherine Barkman as grown-up Clara. Hernández’s dancing is the ultimate combination of smooth, lofty and technically superb, while Barkman’s grace and delicacy injected the grand pas de deux with a unique lightness. Act II’s variations were all quite good, particularly the Spanish, which is short but deceptively tricky, and the Russian. And there was an unsung hero who must be acknowledged. As the battle sequence was beginning, a piece of costuming inadvertently dropped center stage. That kind of thing happens all the time, but the surprising thing was that dancer after dancer moved by it and just left it there in the middle of the action. Finally, one of the mice dropped to the ground in a roll and unobtrusively scooped it up. Bravo!
December 20th – Holiday performance in the Bay Area has always been vast and varied. A true myriad of productions, styles, genres and disciplines – something for everyone and for every taste. While the last couple of years have certainly been tough for the theater, as we close 2022, most of those holiday performance traditions are back in full force, and many are stronger than ever.
One that is experiencing a renewed energy and vigor is Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet, currently finishing out its December engagement at YBCA. The company looks very strong. The variations that Artistic Director Celia Fushille and her artistic team selected for the two halves – The Classical Christmas and The Cool Christmas – are fun, vibrant and very fresh, be they a new premiere or a longtime favorite choreographed by the company’s founder Michael Smuin. I’ve seen The Christmas Ballet on many occasions, but this was my first time at the LGBTQ+ celebratory night (the third one Smuin has hosted). A fabulous emcee guided us through the evening, which benefitted several local LGBTQ+ organizations. The runner-up for season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Lady Camden, aka former Smuin company artist Rex Wheeler, not only welcomed us into the space, but also made a couple of amazing appearances later in the show.
In honor of the LGBTQ+ community, the rainbow flag, or pride flag was heartily saluted throughout. Dancers in Smuin’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a choreographic statement of gorgeous simplicity, donned colorful sashes offsetting their stark white costuming. Pretty Paper replaced the traditional one-hued ribbon with a popping rainbow one, and in the hilarious Santa Baby, led by Lady Camden at this performance, the famous boa boasted every color one could imagine. But costuming and design weren’t the only ways the Smuin team thought about this particular program. There were also notable changes in assigned casting. Instead of adhering to traditional ballet gender norms, Smuin changed up roles and pairings in several chapters. The result was just beautiful.
Many of my favorite excerpts in year’s past were back for 2022’s bill, including Act I’s Zither Carol (Smuin). There is much to love in this delicate, ethereal solo, danced at this performance by Claire Buehler. It has everything wonderful that is classical ballet – superb balance, luscious turns and juicy extensions. Choreographer and former Smuin dancer Nicole Haskins had several pieces on the program, including Fantasia and the world premiere of Peaceful Prayer. Like its musical counterpart, the former deliciously lived outside the rules, moving from light, delicate motions to sprightly, upbeat petit allegro. The latter was an emotive, swirling duet by Terez Dean Orr and Anthony Cannarella. Passionate and elastic, it felt like Orr rarely touched the ground. The other world premiere for 2022 was created by Smuin alum Amy Seiwert, The Twelve Days of Christmas – a genius mash-up of the titular song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Deck the Halls, and surprisingly, even Toto’s 1982 hit, Africa. The visual landscape provided a perfect mix of dance and gesture, humor and nostalgia.
One thing I look forward to in The Christmas Ballet is the joyous presence of percussive dance, a form that doesn’t get its due on the concert stage in my opinion. Peppy Celtic footwork offset a calm upper body in The Gloucestershire Wassail and Act II’s Bells of Dublin. Waltz clog pulled up to the table in Droopy Little Christmas Tree (all three by Smuin). And Tessa Barbour’s duet It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas was so much fun. The tap prowess of Cannarella and Ricardo Dyer was undeniable and impeccable – from beginning to end, every beat, so precise and crisp.