Stage

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.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Clowns in Space
The Big Bang ... and other rude noises! By the New Pickle Circus. Directed by Tandy Beal. Composed by Jeffrey Gaeto. At Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, Dec. 12-Jan. 4. Call 441-3687.

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.

Visually the piece worked beautifully. The two circular screens, which displayed jungles, skyscapes, and computer animation against a black heavenly backdrop, counted as the most lusciously poetic use of multimedia imaging I have ever seen. And many of the acts -- especially Wang Hong balancing spinning umbrellas on her feet or Silvain Dubois driving a trick bicycle with demonic fervor -- worked a kind of collective hypnosis on the crowd. Other scenes, however, seemed both underrehearsed and misconceived. "Star Song" was an oozing Disney-esque ditty sung by Annabelle Cruz, who was dressed like a cosmic beauty queen in a starry parachute; the song exemplified the worst of composer Jeffrey Gaeto's eclectic but at times too smooth jazz score. A monologue about man's prevailing aggressive nature was followed by "Cave Men," a series of static lifts and holds; the only thing aggressive about the performers was the unconvincing grunts that they emitted between choreographed stunts.

The whole pretense of giving the circus a narrative had not been taken far enough, and many of the transitions cried out for more choreographic ingenuity. (It's ironic that famed choreographer Tandy Beal, now presiding as the circus' artistic director, conceived and directed the show.) The narrative presented some child-friendly scientific ideas, but didn't connect the clowns' journey through time to the various circus acts in anything but the most tenuous way. For instance, after an arch monologue about how the invention of the hamburger bun led to the invention of the wheel, two acrobats (the charming young brothers Francisco and Raphael Cruz) performed an act of tumbling through hoops; it seemed a more appropriate prologue to the bicycle act. It was this sort of carelessness that kept the show from transcending its parameters as hip and happening family entertainment. Yet for many -- including the wildly appreciative audience and, as it turns out, my art-jaded mother -- these were just rude noises compared to an evening that delivered on its big bang promise.

-- Carol Lloyd

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