By Jonathan Ramos
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Jonathan Curiel
By Alexis Coe
A Very Smuin Xmas
The Christmas Ballet. Choreography by Michael Smuin. Performed by Smuin Ballets/SF at Center for the Arts, 700 Howard (at Third Street), Dec. 17-30. Call 978-2787.
At some point in "The Bells of Dublin" -- one of over two dozen Mentos-ad-size dance-o-tainments that make up Smuin Ballets/SF's Christmas Ballet -- my companion and I realized the step-and-tap-dancing lad from yonder Ireland way wasn't making all the clatter. A canned drum machine was backing him up. Waiting for the choreographer to give the machine the spotlight it deserved, we started to laugh. The lady in front of us quickly cut us off. "Gutter trash!" she hissed. We were having a Michael Smuin experience.
For at least a year now, the dance critics at our dailies have been carrying on a snippy battle (the Chron's Roca pro, the Ex's Ulrich con) over whether S.F. Ballet's former artistic director makes good ballet -- good art. The real question, I think, is whether Smuin's danceteria doodads create good fun. On that account his Christmas Ballet, at least, fails. Susan Sontag would have called it "too mediocre in its ambition" to catch any of its own jokes. Without enough passion or seriousness to flop in any really big way, the ballet can't arouse the camp pleasures it gestures toward. Your fun is strictly of your own making.
But the show's first half, "Classical Christmas," comes close to camp glee. The prelude features enormous Renaissance angels projected onto a screen at the stage's lip; it's clear we're in for a dose of uplift. Wallpapered in generic classical noise -- a bit of Bach, Mozart, traditional European song, and some "Jewish music" -- the dances would have fit right into the Ice Capades. They're chockablock with improbable lifts (my favorite featuring women, split like T-squares, sproinging in and out of their partners' forklift-arms), vaguely scary arm gestures, and contorted poses held for too many seconds.
If the first half, all in snowy costumes and light, is a white Christmas, the "Cool Christmas" that follows brims with color (nudge, nudge). As soon as it begins, the audience goes electric: They've been waiting for this. What those who play in camp often do with class, celebrating what they know (wink, wink) is vulgar, Smuin does with ethnicity, race, gender, age -- with whatever category he can muster up. But the difference between even the most suspect of the camp contingent and Smuin is that he doesn't tinker with stereotypes and the prejudices they distill; he just reproduces them, running them to their obvious conclusion. With blandified versions of reggae, Mexican folk, gospel, etc., Smuin is saying, "Aren't those odd ethnic habits just so cuuute!?" The bits are idiotic, not cute, but to their credit, I guess, they're also far too removed from their supposed subjects to effectively exploit them.
The one exception involves a little crinkly haired blond girl in flouncy party dress and taps whom the audience, suddenly transformed into a chanting, stamping mob, eggs on to dance faster! faster! The little angel spins and clatters so swiftly to the relentless assault of a speed-metal-cum-Cajun-hoedown that she's on the verge of whizzing out into space and exploding into a million trillion darling pieces.
Most of the second half, though, is more like "Reggae Christmas," where three dancers in fake dreads blow big puffs of smoke and stagger about. Ho. Ho. Or "Hula Christmas" -- three island ladies hula while a guy hangs-ten behind them. Or "Santa Baby" -- a sultry babe in scanty, satin-red, fringed leotard and ... oh, why go on?
The Christmas Ballet is a drip of Lawrence Welk transplanted into the heart of San Francisco. This oatmeal entertainment hates and loves nothing: It's a collapsible art you can take anywhere because it belongs nowhere. I would gladly suffer Smuin if he were only brave enough to make a real fool of himself; as it stands, he's just a cynic shrink-wrapped in wacky, zany jolliness.
Perhaps it was my parents' disdain for musicals, circuses, and other sites of multigenerational wholesomeness, but I grew up thinking "family entertainment" signified something both tedious and insulting. So I understood when my mother groaned on being invited to The Big Bang ... and other rude noises!, the latest show by the New Pickle Circus. "They call themselves 'new circus,' " I said. "Maybe they're different." And indeed, the New Pickle Circus turned out to be genuinely trying to stretch the limits of family entertainment to a form that merges high art's vision with low art's lack of pretense.
The group's origins are in the Pickle Family Circus, the venerable, 20-year-old institution that went belly up in 1994. This is the reconstituted organization's third show. The Big Bang had all the ingredients of the "new circus" form they innovated. There were no animal acts (though there are women dressed in bird feathers), few death-defying stunts, and less gratuitous spectacle than Cirque du Soleil. Instead, springing from the Bay Area's legacy of visually sophisticated movement theater, the one-ring circus mimicked the shape and feel of a multimedia performance. Traditional circus acts like juggling, acrobatic bicycling, and slack-rope walking fit into a loose narrative net with original live music and high-tech projections. The Big Bang's story followed the adventures of Mom and Dad, two clowns who take a ride in a spaceship with an alien puppet who resembles Kermit. The alien told them not to push a certain red button, which, inevitably pushed, transported them back to the beginning of the universe. From there unraveled a series of light shows, acrobatic routines, and clown acts, all glued together with the odd monologue about cosmic evolution, or scenes about Mom and Dad's children trying to find them.