Founder Michael Smuin set the bar high when it came to nurturing his dancers’ creative talents. In a somewhat uncommon move, he invited his dancers to create original works for the Company. Smuin most notably mentored Amy Seiwert, who danced with the Company for nine years and is now Smuin’s resident choreographer. Seiwert will be presenting her original work set to Joni Mitchell’s soulful “River” in this season’s version of The Christmas Ballet.
Artistic Director Celia Fushille takes great care to continue the legacy that Smuin created. This year’s program boasts four new works, three of which are choreographed by artists within the Company. While most established choreographers have left their performing days behind, it’s become de rigueur at Smuin to have current dancers test their compositional chops on their fellow company members. When it comes to commissioning new pieces for each year’s rendition, Fushille stresses the importance of each piece blending seamlessly into the existing structure of the ballet, while complimenting the works alongside it. Simultaneously juggling the roles of dancer and choreographer can be rather demanding, but Smuin’s dancers are eager to rise to the challenge.
In Act I, dancer Rex Wheeler presents “We Three Kings,” a neo-classical piece for three couples. In a rather nostalgic move, Wheeler chose a beloved childhood carol for his new work. “I remembered how much I enjoyed ‘We Three Kings’ and thinking how beautiful it would be to dance to.” Wheeler used his previous performance experience in The Christmas Ballet to his advantage when setting the tone for his piece. “Embracing an element of character was important to me. I wanted to pair steps that sparkled with the cheeky personality one often finds throughout The Christmas Ballet.
Creating a new work while simultaneously learning and rehearsing choreography can be a “confusing experience,” Wheeler admits, he quickly concedes that this pales in comparison to the thrill of watching his fellow dancers perform his work. “Seeing how they make it their own is the best part—they know my sense of humor very well. I always love a dash of playfulness!”.
In dancer Nicole Haskins’ case, great care and consideration was taken in establishing the feeling and structure of her piece based on existing The Christmas Ballet works. Her ultimate goal was to “make something fun and enjoyable for the dancers and audience alike.” Haskins aimed for her choreography to mimic the crisp, clean notes in Sinatra’s “J-I-N-G-L-E Bells,” a personal favorite of hers.
Switching from performer to choreographer isn’t always a seamless transition for Haskins. “The hardest part is to remember to go on for my own parts after my piece. I’m usually distracted by watching it!” While maneuvering between both roles can be tricky at times, Haskins affirms her role as a choreographer enhances her experience as a performer. “It makes me enjoy performing in the shows that much more because I get the pleasure of watching my friends and co-workers bring my vision to life.”
Lastly, Michael Smuin’s finale is getting a makeover this season, set to The Drifters’ recording of “White Christmas.” Dancer Ben Needham-Wood took on the not-so-small task of refashioning Smuin’s original choreography in his own voice. The weightiness of this creative undertaking was not lost on Needham-Wood. “Michael Smuin was not only a highly regarded choreographer, but he is the namesake of our Company; he is the heart and soul that this Company was built around. I could not be more proud to have had this to have the opportunity to dissect and re-envision his work.”
There is a certain amount of added pressure that comes with revisiting an already established and beloved work that one doesn’t see when creating an entirely original piece of choreography. “I approached this adaptation much like how you would remodel a house— I kept the foundation that Michael had built, but I redecorated it with new steps and textures.” Needham-Wood explains. “There are a few steps that are quintessentially ‘Michael’ which I knew I needed to include; several of the formations and stage patterns are paramount to understanding the intent behind his vision for the finale.” This new take on a Smuin favorite is the perfect way to ring in the holidays. While it may not snow here in the Bay Area, it certainly does during “White Christmas!”
Come for the new works, and stay for the classics! We hope to see you at this year’s edition of The Christmas Ballet! Buy your tickets here.