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Feasting on the Smuin Ballet's XXmas Ballet

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I got an early start on the holiday spirit this year, thanks to the Smuin Ballet and its annual Xmas Ballet. This is an event—half classical, half pop—that even people who don’t like dance, or children who haven’t been introduced to it yet, should find highly entertaining.

Named for its late founder, this dance company describes itself as Beyond Ballet. That’s because when Michael Smuin set out to create the company 20 years ago, he wanted “to infuse ballet with the rhythm, speed, and syncopation of American popular culture,” he explained—to please audiences through what the company calls simply “prowess, passion, pizzazz.”

All those qualities are on display in its crowd-pleasing Xmas Ballet, now kept alive and renewed by Celia Fushille, a founding member who became the company’s artistic and executive director on Smuin’s sudden death in 2007. She's continued one of Smuin’s signature programs—this year’s anniversary event is titled XXmas Ballet—which starts with dances to music by composers such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Palestrina (Classical Christmas) and winds up with variegated, not always en pointe dancing to songs recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Eartha Kitt, and Diana Krall (Cool Christmas). It is disappointing that the company does not perform to live music, but then, recordings are the only way we are going to hear Elvis et al. at all, right?

With such a long-lived holiday program, there are more than enough dances (most choreographed by Smuin) to choose from each year, but you never know which ones you’ll see on the bill. New music and dances are always intermingled with old faves. This year, for instance, there is no Ray Charles and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” one of my all-time favorites, but making up for that on the bluesy side is Kitt singing “Santa Baby” as only she can, and Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” with Jonathan Dummar an arrogant, sexy Elvis. I also liked resident choreographer Amy Seiwert’s jazzy moves to Aaron Neville’s rendition of the great Charles Brown and Gene Redd standard “Please Come Home for Christmas.”

The company is staying true to Smuin’s vision while adding to it. This year’s Xmas program features world premieres by Seiwert (“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” sung by Kay Starr) and Robert Dekkers (“Carol of the Bells,” sung by the Seattle Men’s Chorus and the Robert Shaw Chorale). If all this isn’t enough to convince of the protean nature of the offerings—and I didn’t even mention Placido Domingo or Leon Redbone—consider another audience favorite on tap this year: tap dancer extraordinaire Shannon Hurlbutt performing to two songs by the Chieftains, “Bells of Dublin” (solo) and “Belles of Blackville Reel” (with five company men). Excellent!

The troupe consists of fine, spirited dancers, and I enjoyed the program as it whizzed by, especially when the moves best matched the music, which is, in my opinion, in the more syncopated pieces. This is a meal with a few too many dishes, though; my memory regarding the individual dances (16 classical, 16 cool) began to blur while I was still in the auditorium. It’s the equivalent of the 2-minute, 45-second song that used to be the standard on pop and rock radio stations. Just as I’m eating less but better these days, I’ve become accustomed to longer, more involved songs and dances. Then again, it is the holiday season, when we’re apt to stuff ourselves. And on the whole, this is one fun feast.

Smuin Ballet’s XXmas Ballet, Dec. 11-15, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., 650.903.6000; Dec. 18-28, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F., 415.912.1899, smuinballet.org.

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