California Literary Review

Dance Vine

Smuin Ballet Swims in the Blue Ocean of Holiday Fun

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December 19th, 2011 at 10:00 am

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Smuin Ballet dancer Robin Cornwell blows kisses at the audience as the curtain goes down in The Christmas Ballet. Photo by Keith Sutter.

[L]eading companies will succeed not by battling competitors, but by creating “blue oceans” of uncontested market space ripe for growth. — Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, Blue Ocean Strategy (2005)

Picture this — you just started a new ballet company and Christmas is coming. You also know that in most companies, the annual Nutcracker production pays for much of the year’s repertory performance budget throughout the entire year. But, and this is a big one, you are operating in a town that has put on one of the best Nutcrackers ever — and for years! Added to that, the surrounding region has several other well-respected versions of the holiday classic.

Your company is a lot smaller than the big brother across town, and your new company lacks the foundation funding enjoyed by the other team. So, do you put on your own Nutcracker, one that will be smaller in scope and production values? Or do you start your own tradition; and, if you do, what will that new tradition be?

Fortunately for local Bay Area audiences, Michael Smuin chose not to go into direct competition with all the Nutcrackers in the region. Instead, he took the path that has been recognized in business circles as the Blue Ocean. He chose not to compete.

In a nutshell, the idea is that most businesses are chasing the same prize in the same shark-infested waters, ripping one another into bloody shreds — the Red Ocean. The Blue Ocean Strategy goal is to create something new, something innovative — i.e., swim in the calm Blue Ocean. And that is just what Michael Smuin did. With The Christmas Ballet, he followed his own creative path, and came up with a winner.

The ballet consists of two parts. The first half, “The Classical Christmas,” is devoted to traditional ballet with classical Christmas music, including liturgical works. In the second half, “The Cool Christmas,” pointe shoes are out, stilettos and tap shoes are in, and the music shifts from Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic to Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, and Leon Redbone.

In “The Classical Christmas,” the big standout for me this year was the simplest. There is something timeless and charming about the minimalist line dance by the company women to “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” It reminds us that dance does not always need to be tricky and complicated to be wonderful. Oh, there were masses of tricky solos and partner work, to be sure, but the sheer loveliness of this dance will linger in memory far longer than fancy footwork.

For speed, power, and jaw-dropping lifts and catches, Amy Seiwert’s “Carol of the Bells,” ably led by Jared Hunt and Jane Rehm, offered all the speed and precision anyone could require. And Smuin’s choreography for “Jauchzet Frohlocket,” set to a section of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, filled the stage with its clever entrances and exits, making the seventeen-member company seem twice its size.

However, although Smuin audiences appreciate classical ballet, they absolutely love the sass and cheekiness in “The Cool Christmas.” From Susan Roemer’s saucy turn in “Santa Baby” to Shannon Hurlburt’s infectious tapping in “Bells of Dublin,” this is some serious fun! It all ends on a nostalgic note to the strains of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” as dancers wave to the audience while snow falls on the stage and in the house.

Over the years, The Christmas Ballet has become as much a Bay Area holiday tradition as Nutcracker. Under the able stewardship of Artistic Director Celia Fushille, each year, it is tweaked a bit — new things are added, and some bits are put aside for the moment. But it is always wonderful!

The Christmas Ballet 2011: Smuin Ballet. Through December 24 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets, see www.smuinballet.org or call 415-556-5000.

  • Nancy Baldock

    I love to see the competitive and competent spirit of the path less taken. It is a tribute to creativity, to ingenuity, and yes, to bravery. I applaud the sheer pluckiness of those who chose the Blue Ocean. After all, it is the dance that is the focus, and dance has many facets as is demonstrated admirably in Smuin’s “The Christmas Ballet” and reviewed so aptly by Geri Jeter.

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