Heather Desaulniers

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Streamed Dec. 11th-24th 

I can only imagine the celebratory experience Smuin Contemporary Ballet had envisioned for the 25th anniversary of its festive The Christmas Ballet. Retrospectives, remembrances, ample premieres. Then this year happened. But true to Smuin form, they adapted quickly and made new plans. The result was incredibly celebratory, and exceedingly festive, even though the troupe and its audience couldn’t physically be in the same space.

Tess Lane
Photo Max ven der Sterre

The company, under the leadership of Artistic Director Celia Fushille, came up with a great alternative format. The Christmas Ballet would unfold over three unique programs. Each of Smuin’s dancer pods (4-5 dancers working together while adhering to strict COVID protocols) would have a dedicated bill in which they would dance premiere and previous selections from The Christmas Ballet’s two halves: Classical Christmas and Cool Christmas. Following these new performances, Smuin would screen archival footage (the same on each of the three nights) of The Christmas Ballet, especially those portions requiring a larger cast. 

I saw the programs in a B, C, A order, so up first for me was the quartet of Ian Buchanan, Maggie Carey, Tess Lane and Max van der Sterre. Six dances, of which two were world premieres, made up their set. The four choreographically collaborated on a new White Christmas offering, highlighting the classic beauty of ballet vocabulary – Buchanan’s fouetté/pirouette sequence mid-way through was particularly impressive. The sassy Snow Day!, from former Smuin dancer Rex Wheeler, delighted at every turn. Skating and skiing-inspired movement abounded as did springy pas de chats. And no snow day would be complete without a snowball fight; here, we were treated to a fun, stylized version. As has always been the case with The Christmas Ballet, company founder Michael Smuin’s choreography was front and center. In the remaining four works, the viewer was reminded that Smuin was both a leader in entertainment and at thinking outside the box as to what is possible in the field of ballet. Crisp batterie and backwards-spinning lifts; parallel positions and inventive jumps onto demi-pointe; joyful, romantic epaulement and traditional attitude balances – the creativity was undeniable.

Program C’s more challenging quintet grouping (Tessa Barbour, Mengjun Chen, Ricardo Dyer, Lauren Pschirrer and Brennan Wall) proved no obstacle for the choreographic visions of Barbour and Ben Needham-Wood, both of whom brought world premiere dances to the screen. Barbour’s We Wish You a Merry Christmas had an unmistakable dynamism throughout and highlighted some amazing turning acumen, specifically Pschirrer’s front attitude spin. Needham-Wood’s Thank God It’s Christmas was full of abandon and merriment and seamlessly blended an innovative variety of physical vocabularies together. Wall contributed the third premiere on this bill, a lovely, wispy duet titled Christmas Concerto. Danced by Barbour and Pschirrer, what struck about this piece was how it emphasized how different steps use the floor in a distinct manner – chaissé, tombé, relevé. But by far, the standout of Program C was Smuin’s percussive solo, Bells of Dublin. It’s a stunner every year and 2020 was no exception. Barbour’s rhythmical tap was as crisp and energetic as could be, while the upper body countered, remaining calm, still and quiet. 

Terez Dean Orr
Photo Brandon Alexander

Last up for my Smuin dance card was pod A’s (Brandon Alexander, Cassidy Isaacson, John Speed Orr and Terez Dean Orr) program two days before Christmas. The holiday cheer kicked off with two dances of elegance, regality and long elastic arabesques, leading into Amy Seiwert’s delightful premiere, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?, gorgeously performed by Dean Orr and Speed Orr. Suspended, soaring movements and deep lunges informed the jazzy pas de deux. Every instant was flirty and romantic with an almost retro-like glamour for which  Smuin Contemporary Ballet is well known. An additional picturesque duet took the bill’s next spot ushering in a humorous, theatrical romp with some stunning fouettés, ‘Zat You Santa Clause?, a new work choreographed by Isaacson. And finally, rhythm, timing, accents and unexpected emphasis was in the cards with Nicole Haskins’ J-I-N-G-L-E Bells.

As previously mentioned, the archival portion of this year’s The Christmas Ballet was the same on each bill, featuring current company artists and alums in some of the production’s most famed chapters (unless otherwise noted, the selections are choreographed by Michael Smuin). The grand occasion of Magnificat. The swirling, sinuous flavor of Seiwert’s Noel Nouvelet, danced by Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Jonathan Powell. The punctuated partnered split jump in Unto Us a Child is Born. The patterning, stage architecture and grounded-ness of Veni, Veni Emmanuel. The fantastic unison in Haskins’ Joy to the World. Then we were onto the ‘Cool Christmas’ curated collection. I definitely have my favorite dances in this lot, though it’s the inclusion of jazz and old school tap on the concert stage that I find most appealing and noteworthy. Barbour’s ebullient tap duet, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas with its single and double backwalks had nostalgic charm to spare. Seiwert’s I Pray on Christmas with its full layouts and abundant tuck jumps spoke of easygoing fun. Also from Seiwert came one of the most beautiful duets in The Christmas Ballet’s canon, danced by Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz, River. It’s voluminous. It’s expansive. And the spinning lift in fifth position takes my breath away every time I see it. 

Tessa Barbour
Photo Brennan Wall

I think the only thing missing for me was that save a few excerpts from 2016, 2017 and 2018, the archival material was mostly from last year’s performance. With this being The Christmas Ballet’s silver anniversary, some film clips from 1995-2015 would have been a lovely addition.