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    Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet Includes Hanukkah Candle Blessing, World’s Longest Boa and Tap-Dancing Trees

    Smuin makes the holidays sizzle with its annual yuletide celebration of dance, The Christmas Ballet. With a stunning and original array of ballet, tap, and jazz, this joyous showcase of styles offers both sugar and spice, with the surprise unwrapping of new treats every year.

    The 2017 edition of The Christmas Ballet features three saucy world premieres: one by acclaimed Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert, another created by Smuin dancer Rex Wheeler, and a debut number choreographed by dancer Erica Felsch. The Christmas Ballet is touring the Bay Area and is now in Mountain View (through December 10), before the holiday run wrap up at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco (December 14–24).

    The first act, Classical Christmas, features the dancers enrobed in brilliant white costumes, performing traditional holiday favorites including Michael Smuin classics “Bach Magnificat” and “Ave Maria,” Seiwert’s joyful “Sleigh Ride,” and Michael Smuin’s nod to Hanukkah, “Licht bensh’n” meaning “Candle Blessing.”

    Michael Smuin (1938–2007) founded his namesake dance company in 1994. Since then, the company has pushed the boundaries of contemporary ballet within a distinctly American style, engaging and delighting audiences with uncommon physicality and expression. As Artistic Director since 2007, Celia Fushille has maintained Michael Smuin’s legacy while enriching the company’s impressive repertoire by collaborating with inventive choreographers from around the world, commissioning world premieres, and bringing new contemporary choreographic voices to the Smuin stage.

    The second act kicks off with a red-hot costume change. In Cool Christmas, the dancers perform a lively medley of modern festive numbers including the flirty Smuin favorite “Santa Baby,” featuring the world’s longest feather boa, and a swinging “Jingle Bells Mambo” by Val Caniparoli. Also on the bill are “Christmas in New Orleans,” a fun and light-hearted “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the return of the delightful tap-dancing Christmas trees featured in the tongue-in-cheek “Droopy Little Christmas Tree.”

    A trademark of Smuin is its beautiful staging. All aspects, from the lights to the props to the cascade of “snow” at the end, enrich each performance. We recently caught up with Kathryn “KT” Graham, Smuin’s Production Director and Stage Manager, to learn what goes on behind the scenes of The Christmas Ballet.

    San Francisco Bay Times: It’s our understanding that the most important part of setting the stage is the dance floor, called “marley.” What is it made of, and what goes into the set-up?

    KT Graham: The dance floor is made up of two parts: the sub-floor and the marley top layer. The sub-floor, composed of two layers of wood atop foam blocks, gives a bit of cushion to the floor so the dancers can jump and land more safely than on a hard surface, like plain wood or concrete. It is stored in 5’x5’ sections, and fitted together in an interlocking pattern on the stage. Marley is a very smooth, linoleum-like material that offers a flat, even surface for the dancers to jump, turn and roll safely. Marley is stored in large rolls, and is spread out tightly on the floor and held down with a special tape to minimize bubbles and wrinkles—all of which can impede a dancer’s turns.

    San Francisco Bay Times: The Christmas Ballet is separated into two acts: Classical Christmas, which is staged in white, and Cool Christmas, which is performed in red. How many set changes do you make during the intermission?

    KT Graham: We change the colored “gels” in many of the 400+ lights hanging over the stage. We also change the curtains surrounding the stage from black to red—the “borders” covering the hanging lights, the “legs” or “wings” curtains on the side of the stage, as well as the backdrop. The crew is working hard to make all those changes during the 15-minute intermission!

    San Francisco Bay Times: How long does it take to load in the floor, lighting, curtains, and sets?

    KT Graham: Load-in and focusing the lights takes about 20 to 22 hours over two days with a crew of 15 people! Including hanging electricals, we use more than 30 hanging “pipes” or pieces of scenery. We also have to set up the hundreds of props used by the dancers. Fortunately, we rehearse the more complex Act Two first, and then Act One so that we’re all set up for our dress rehearsal the next day! We also prepare for the new works on the program, including staging and lights, which our lighting designer creates on the fly.

    San Francisco Bay Times: The Christmas Ballet is known for its classic wintry snow at the end of each performance. How does this magic happen?

    KT Graham: In most of our venues, we hang a long tube with small holes in it and fill it with snow (flame-proof confetti)! It’s moved by pulleys, which shake the snow out. When snow falls over the audience, it is thrown by the spotlight operators from the catwalk to add to the effect. After the show, we refill the tubes with snow first and sweep the stage afterwards—what a mess!

    San Francisco Bay Times: What keeps you coming back to The Christmas Ballet?

    KT Graham: I’ve been with Smuin since 1997, and I still love the excitement of seeing all of the pieces come together for the first time each year. It’s a new puzzle to solve from scratch each time, because we shift the order of the show. During the production, I love to sit backstage calling cues, and hearing how the audience reacts to the show. It’s a real adrenaline rush!

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    Behind the Boa

    The mother of all boas belongs to Smuin and is brought out for their sexy rendition of “Santa Baby,” which we look forward to seeing each year. The boa is said to be the longest in the world. Measuring 42 feet long, it is in actuality seven 6-foot boas that were carefully sewn together. This, and other props, take a beating on stage, as one might imagine with all of the choreography, set changes and more. Smuin Artistic Director Celia Fushille shared a stage secret with us: When props are damaged, or sometimes fail, “they’re getting tossed off stage” when the lights go out. To the audience, each show looks seamless, but that is thanks to Fushille and her talented team.