This season, Smuin celebrates the holidays with the 23rd edition of its iconic and festive favorite: The Christmas Ballet. We sat down with former Smuin dancer and current Artistic Director Celia Fushille to gain some insight into what goes into staging this Bay Area holiday classic and keeping it fresh year after year.
The ballet itself has almost 30 individual works included in it. How do you navigate the programming and the casting with so many moving parts?
The ultimate challenge is figuring out where things will go so that they have a nice flow and so that the many costume changes are possible. Sometimes the women have a hair change, a costume change, and a shoe change all at once! We look for opportunities to lessen the quick changes, while still keeping a good arc to the production.
Two of the new works in this season’s edition are choreographed by current company dancers. How do you go about commissioning new works from within the Company?
I’ve had great success asking former or current performers of The Christmas Ballet to create, because they know how to create something that’s going to fit within that whole production stylistically. Each new work has to have that same feeling, humor, and nostalgia that are hallmarks of The Christmas Ballet.
I like to commission at least one new work for each act. [Choreographer in Residence] Amy Seiwert wanted to do a larger group work, which I thought was lovely because we haven’t had a new group [piece] for a number of years. I was really happy with her Vivaldi selection, since I personally love brass. It sounds so majestic and celebratory, which fits with the holiday spirit in The Christmas Ballet.
Can you tell me a bit about the first production of The Christmas Ballet? What was Michael’s process like?
Michael [Smuin, our founder,] knew that we needed to have an evergreen performance in our repertoire, and the natural idea was to come up with something for Christmas. I think there might have been some inspiration for Michael from the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. As the ballet progressed, it naturally split into the two acts of “Classical Christmas” and “Cool Christmas.” In many ways, The Christmas Ballet represents Smuin: it shows everything we can do, all in one show. It shows the breadth of our abilities from classical [ballet], to tap, jazz, ballroom, and whatever other flavors come up in the second act! Michael had no idea it would become such a hit and such a tradition.
In that very first year [in 1995,] Michael used a couple of pieces from a ballet he did at San Francisco Ballet, [set to] Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. I danced in that ballet on my very first tour to New York with San Francisco Ballet in 1980. Four of the thirteen original Act I numbers had already been created: Dominae, Gloria, Gratias, and Qui Tollis. [Using those four as a base], he added a few pas de deux to Act I, and the entirety of Act II. Michael was brilliant at capitalizing on the talent he had in the room. A lot of these [dances] were created based on the people he had working for him. The dancers would often inspire his casting and his ideas.
What were some of your favorite pieces to perform?
[In Act I], I’ve always loved dancing Zither Carol, and I enjoyed dancing Dominae (a pas de deux for two women) because it was so technically challenging. When we rehearsed Dominae, Michael would make us dance it two times in a row, every time. He said, “If you can do it twice in the studio, you’ll be able to do it once on the stage.” After having seen so many people at San Francisco Ballet perform that piece, and the exceptional quality of the dancers who had performed it before me, I felt honored dancing that work. I’ve also always loved the opening, Magnificat, with the capes and everyone sparkling onstage. [In Act II,] I loved dancing La Calandria, and Santa Baby. Baby, It’s Cold Outside was so fun to dance, because it told a little story; Michael’s narratives were always so great.
Would you say The Christmas Ballet has changed much since its first performance?
We have nine pieces reappearing this year that were in that very first year, which means that about a third of the show is from the very first edition of The Christmas Ballet. But, the production does change every single year. I think the second year (1996) was the only one that didn’t change much because that was the same year that we had just performed at Carnegie Hall. Michael was directing and choreographing a tribute show for Ira Gershwin’s centennial that was filmed and televised nationally on PBS.
This year’s edition of The Christmas Ballet includes six works from Choreographer in Residence Amy Seiwert, as well as five from current company dancers. Former Smuin dancer Shannon Hurlburt also joins the lineup with a sassy tap rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and acclaimed choreographer Val Caniparoli brings his “Jingle Bells Mambo” back to Act II. While this season’s ballet boasts 3 newly-commissioned works, Michael Smuin’s choreography still makes up the vast majority of this year’s production (15 works in total).
What keeps the The Christmas Ballet so timeless while still allowing audiences to experience something new each year?
It’s amazing that it’s changed so much over the years, and yet there are so many things that stay the same. For me, it’s the nostalgia and the joy–that’s ultimately what I think of with The Christmas Ballet. It’s still wonderful to hear so many people walk out of the theater and say, “Now the holidays have started; I’ve seen The Christmas Ballet.”
This year, we celebrate the holidays with the 23rd edition of Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet. We hope you join us again for your favorite pieces, and stay tuned for our new premieres! It’s sure to be a joyous way to spend the holidays.