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    San Francisco’s British Queen Steps into the Shoes of Santa Baby

    Lady Camden does Santa Baby

    Smuin Contemporary Ballet kicks off the holidays in San Francisco with The Christmas Ballet! This annual holiday tradition featuring everything from tap and jazz, to swing and sock-hopping, gets a twist this year with special guest Lady Camden in her inaugural performance as the iconic “Santa Baby” on Smuin’s LGBTQ+ Night on Thursday, December 19.

    Each year, fans of The Christmas Ballet look forward to pieces such as “Blue Christmas,” complete with a hip-shaking Elvis cameo; or “La Calandria,” a lively, Latin-inspired solo with a show-stopping finale. The lineup changes year to year, with new numbers unveiled every season (this year unwraps three world premieres by Smuin Ballet Master Amy London, Smuin artist Tessa Barbour, and former Smuin artist Rex Wheeler). But most will agree that the iconic moment in this festive showcase is when the slinky “Santa Baby” strolls onstage, trailing the world’s longest feather boa.

    The Christmas Ballet was created 25 years ago by Michael Smuin, who was looking for an alternative to The Nutcracker in holiday dance entertainment. He declared that he was going to set dances to all different types of holiday songs, from popular melodies to multi-denominational songs. In his search for off-beat Christmas tunes, someone suggested a novelty song: “Santa Baby,” in which Eartha Kitt had shocked Eisenhower-era listeners with her suggestive purrs, asking Santa Claus for Cadillacs and diamond rings.

    Michael loved the sexy twist on a holiday plea, and set the ballet on prima ballerina Celia Fushille, giving her a back-up cast of eager suitors who pranced behind her offering diamonds, yachts, and the deeds to platinum mines. In the opening moment of the song, this world-class vamp came slinking on stage with what Michael declared would have to be “The World’s Longest Feather Boa.”

    He sat down with costume designer Sandra Woodall to determine how long he could have the boa (“That’s so Michael, isn’t it?” says Sandra), and she worked out how it would be constructed. She ended up piecing together seven of the fluffiest red and white boas she could find to create a 42-foot-long monster that slowly followed Celia across the stage, which eventually even inspired a tradition among longtime attendees to “BYOB” (Bring Your Own Boa)!

    Celia played the role until she retired from dancing in 2006 and is now Artistic Director of Smuin. The sizzling role of Santa Baby has since been passed on to other dancers, and this year will be played by Smuin company members Terez Dean Orr and Tessa Barbour—plus, special guest star Lady Camden, who will step into the red-hot heels Santa Baby on Smuin’s LGBTQ+ Night.

    Lady Camden does Santa Baby

    San Francisco drag queen extraordinaire Lady Camden is the alter ego of London-born Wheeler: a dancer, actor, and choreographer who performed with the Smuin company for three seasons. “I chose my name Lady Camden partly because it’s where I grew up, but it’s also about what Camden means to me. My father used to run a famous nightclub called the Electric Ballroom, and as a young fashion designer, my mother used to sell her designs at the weekly fashion market there,” Wheeler recalls.

    He adds, “As a kid, after school I would go over to the Electric Ballroom and wait for my dad to get off work. Sometimes I would bring my rollerblades and skate all over the empty dance floor listening to whatever was on the radio. I would run around the empty nightclub like it was my very own treehouse and I never felt so free. I attribute my crazy imagination to this and to my mum’s sense of creativity. Today and everyday I’m grateful for my cool parents and to Camden town.”

    Wheeler attended the Royal Ballet School, performed for the Royal Family on several occasions, and devoted his early career to mastering classical repertoire. However, he changed his mind about his classical focus after seeing Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet, declaring: “It looked like such fun. I thought, ‘To hell with my preconceptions, I want to dance like that!’”

    Since leaving Smuin, he has been focusing on his choreography (he also contributes one new piece to this year’s The Christmas Ballet, a pas de deux set to “Silver Bells”) and performs as Lady Camden around San Francisco, including drag brunches and tribute nights at mainstays such as Hamburger Mary’s, Oasis, and Beaux.

    Lady Camden’s “Santa Baby” performance headlines Smuin’s LGBTQ+ Night presentation of The Christmas Ballet (7:30 pm, Thursday, December 19) at the Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA (700 Howard St, San Francisco). The full run of Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet is December 12–23. Information and tickets are available by calling 415-912-1899 or at http://www.smuinballet.org/

    Published on December 19, 2019