Naughty and Nice: Holiday Dance Around the Bay

Leigh Donlan raises her glass of champagne (never mind that it’s only 10 in the morning):


Smuin Ballet strutting their holiday stuff  (Photo: Keith Sutter)

Smuin Ballet strutting their holiday stuff (Photo: Keith Sutter)


They’re back!

The holidays, that is. And though it’s eighty degrees here in Northern California and I’m still wearing flip-flops, there are snowflakes, snow queens and other frosty characters waiting in the wings of theaters throughout the Bay Area, ready to transport us into wintry fantasies. Here are some naughty but mostly nice performances that will surely get you in the holiday mood.

And as it is the season of giving, why not give the gift of live dance? That lonely, elderly neighbor? Wouldn’t it make their day if you took them to see a holiday show? Or how about starting a new holiday theatre-going tradition with your special group of friends? The visiting in-laws? Fill that awkward silence with dancing sugarplums. And of course the children. If you don’t have any, borrow some. The memory of seeing Clara and her nutcracker prince battling mice will long outlast any Xbox game. On a tight budget? Remember that all of our dance companies offer discounted tickets and some of them even provide free admissions. So there’s really no excuse to sit home all season watching reruns of Elf and drinking too much eggnog. Let’s all don our gay apparel, get out and support the performing arts!


Hiromi Yamazaki and Edward Stegge of Diablo Ballet in A Swingin' Holiday

Hiromi Yamazaki and Edward Stegge of Diablo Ballet in A Swingin’ Holiday (Photo: Tiffany Bertolami-Fong and Michael Malerba)


A Swingin’ Holiday – Diablo Ballet, Del Valle Theatre, Walnut Creek

Diablo Ballet’s annual tradition, A Swingin’ Holiday, gets audiences toe tapping to a live sixteen piece Swing Orchestra as your favorite holiday songs and tunes from the 30’s and 40’s get you dancing in your seat!

– Lauren Jonas, Artistic Director, Diablo Ballet

Pointe shoes and Duke Ellington aren’t normally served up together but in Diablo Ballet’s A Swingin’ Holiday they’re just the appetizer. Swing-era nightclub scenes and smokin’ jazz are also on the menu, danced in a stylistic fusion of ballet, jive, Lindy Hop and jazz. Rounding out this holiday program is the premiere of Tolstoy’s Waltz by Christopher Stowell, former star of San Francisco Ballet and the Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre. This twenty-minute, hyper-romantic ballet is danced to a succession of miniature compositions by Tolstoy, Julian Scriabin and George Balanchine (multi-talented men!) with pianist Roy Bogas on piano.

A Swingin’ Holiday opens this Friday, November 14, 2014, to live accompaniment by the Diablo Ballet Swing Orchestra, under the direction of Greg Sudmeier, in Diablo’s newly renovated home, the Del Valle Theatre in Walnut Creek.

Ikolo Griffin and dancers from the O'Brien Center of the Arts in The Holiday Gift (Photo: Dawn Cooper)

Ikolo Griffin and dancers from the O’Brien Center of the Arts in The Holiday Gift (Photo: Dawn Cooper)


The Holiday Gift – The O’Brien Center for the Arts, Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park

The journey of creating a new ballet is always exciting, but collaborating with Ikolo Griffin on The Holiday Gift has been magical. Both of us love the Nutcracker, but didn’t want to begin that tradition with our dancers when so many schools and companies already do such a great job. We have listened to hundreds of hours of music, rewritten the story over and over, and had the enthusiastic group of dancers ages 6-86 help make it come to life.”

– Martha O’Brien, Artistic Director, O’Brien Center for the Arts

In this charming new ballet, set during the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris, two young sisters set out on a wintry adventure where, in the end, they learn that the greatest gift of all is universal love. With a cast that includes can-can girls, snow fairies, and a magical snowglobe, The Holiday Gift is an irresistible way for the Nutcracker-weary to fill up with lighthearted cheer.

The Holiday Gift, an original ballet created by Artistic Director Martha O’Brien and choreographer/dancer Ikolo Griffin, will premiere at Spreckels for one day only on Saturday, November 15, 2014.

Smuin Ballet dancers in Uncorked: The Christmas Ballet (Photo: David Allen)

Smuin Ballet’s Uncorked: The Christmas Ballet (Photo: David Allen)


Uncorked: The Christmas Ballet – Smuin Ballet, multiple locations throughout the Bay Area

One of Michael Smuin’s legacies was his belief in bringing forward the next generation of choreographers, and to particularly encourage the artistic growth of dancers within his company who showed an interest in moving on to choreography. This season we are thrilled to have four new works unveiled in Smuin Ballet’s Uncorked: The Christmas Ballet – one by our choreographer-in-residence, Amy Seiwert (a former Smuin dancer), as well as debut pieces from three current dancers Ben Needham-Wood, Nicole Haskins, and Weston Krukow. We are so excited to see what they are developing for our holiday extravaganza.

– Celia Fushille, Artistic Director, Smuin Ballet

A carousel of mischief and elegance, Uncorked: The Christmas Ballet will appeal to just about anyone with a pulse and a sense of rhythm, with its gleeful mélange of ballet, tap, and swing plus a wealth of other dances drawn from holiday traditions around the world. This year Uncorked will include new choreography from Smuin’s acclaimed choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert, as well as debut pieces from company dancers Ben Needham-Wood, Nicole Haskins, and Weston Krukow, with music ranging from Elvis to Mozart, the Chieftains and Ray Charles.

Uncorked: The Christmas Ballet will tour the Bay Area Nov. 21 through Dec. 27, beginning with shows in Walnut Creek, continuing in Carmel and Mountain View, and finishing up with its annual holiday run at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.


ODC’s The Velveteen Rabbit (Photo: Cera Heasley)


The Velveteen Rabbit – ODC/Dance, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

As a new mom I heard the story of the Velveteen Rabbit for the first time. Observing my two-year-old helped me choose some of the production elements in the dance. The sleepy boy solo is inspired by watching him sleep with his booty up when he was two. He loved being read to. Adding narration to a story ballet in 1986 was frowned upon. But it was clear to me it was essential in engaging children in the world of dance/theater. In retrospect, the narration allowed me to choreograph the emotional line of the story, not just the narrative. It has allowed children of 3 and 4 years old to sit through an hour-long performance.

– KT Nelson, Artistic Director, ODC/Dance

Long before Toy Story, there was The Velveteen Rabbit, one of the very first and possibly the most charming and magical of that genre of tales around stuffed animals and dolls who become real. Many of us have indelible memories of having this story read to us when we were little, and ODC transforms the magic into a two-act fantasy told through music, dance and narrative. Told from the perspective of the stuffed rabbit who wants nothing more than to become real, the story explores the bond between a little boy and his beloved stuffed companion, that only deepens with time and with the ravages of (stuffed animal) aging.

And there will be actual bunnies! SaveABunny Day with real rabbits returns for its fifth year on Sunday, December 7, 2014. Families will have the chance to meet and touch real rabbits at a rabbit education showcase when ODC partners with SaveABunny, a nonprofit animal rescue organization based in Mill Valley.

In addition, ODC’s Buddies for Bunnies program, now in its tenth year, dedicates two performances and over 1000 tickets to public schools in need. More than 15 Bay Area public schools will benefit this year.

Stapleton Ballet's Nutcracker (Photo: Lester Ng)

Stapleton Ballet’s Nutcracker (Photo: Lester Ng)


The Nutcracker – Stapleton Ballet, Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium (Civic Center), San Rafael

I’ve been doing this part since 2003. Which means the kids that were mice and buffoons when I started have graduated, and some of them that I’m working with now weren’t even born when I started. I feel like that fun, crazy uncle you only get to see once a year, but you know that when you do, there will be shenanigans. And the Stapleton School asks me back year after year. Which is really an honor for me, and I love doing this every year. But sometimes I think to them, “You know what you’re getting yourselves into, right?”

– Chad Yarish, “Drosselmeyer,” Stapleton Ballet

The Stapleton Ballet Nutcracker is a treasured community tradition in the North Bay – a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season, not just for Marin-ites but also for many who make the short, easy pilgrimage over the Golden Gate Bridge or Richmond Bridge. (We know there is this whole we-don’t-do-bridges subculture within San Francisco but that frankly puzzles us. They have no idea what they’re missing.) Now in its 26th year, this production of the timeless tale of Clara and her adventures with her nutcracker prince features 250 talented dancers from The Stapleton School of the Performing Arts, as well as professional guest artists, all whipped into shape by Artistic Director Virginia Stapleton.

Performances are on December 6 and 7, 2014. The School’s outreach program, DanceReach, will present two performances for groups on Friday, Dec. 5 on the main stage of the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium (Civic Center) in San Rafael. Performance times are 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Elizabeth Powell as The Doll in San Francisco Ballet's The Nutcracker (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Elizabeth Powell as The Doll in San Francisco Ballet’s The Nutcracker (Photo: Erik Tomasson)


The Nutcracker – The San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

I’ve danced Clara, Mirlitons, Spanish, The Doll, Snow, and Flowers…

– Elizabeth Powell, corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker debuted on Christmas Eve in 1944 and has been mesmerizing audiences for the last seventy years. Ballet to the People had the pleasure of chatting with corps de ballet member Elizabeth Powell: “In 2006, when I was fifteen, I came to San Francisco to dance (the lead role of) Clara,” which she danced for two consecutive years. Powell continued her studies at the San Francisco Ballet School, performing the roles of Snow and Flowers alongside company members when she was still only in level 8 of her school studies. Named an apprentice in 2011, and then a company member in 2012, she delights in her constantly expanding repertoire, and audiences revel in watching her grow up on stage. When I ask what role she might be aspiring to, she tells me: “I’d love to dance Snow Queen. I really look up to Yuan Yuan Tan and that’s her signature role.” Whatever role she is cast in this year (casting is still not up as I write), we are sure she will be lovely.

The magnificent San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker runs from December 12 – 29, 2014.

The Dance-Along Nutcracker (Photo: Jane Philomen-Cleland)

The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band’s The Dance-Along Nutcracker (Photo: Jane Philomen-Cleland)


The Dance-Along Nutcracker – San Francisco Lesbian/ Gay Freedom Band, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

The Dance-Along Nutcracker blurs the lines of performer, audience and community beyond recognition. Community members create and perform in the show as musicians and actors. They then invite community members to attend as audience, and then invite that audience to join in as performers.

– Pete Nowlen, Artistic Director, SFLGFB

A true San Francisco original with annually changing themes, this year’s “Frosty’s Hawaiian Holiday,” follows the adventures of Fritz, Clara, and the rest of the Stahlbaum family as they escape to Hawaii for a well-deserved vacation. Fritz is struggling to learn to play the ukulele, which drives Clara nuts. The usual gifts from Uncle Drosselmeyer appear, including a Nutcracker and a DVD of “Frosty the Snowman” from which Frosty magically comes to life. Right on cue, the kids get in trouble with their gifts and the ensuing chaos reverses global warming. Uncle Drosselmeyer helps the kids hatch a plan to save Hawaii and the rest of the world. This involves a witch doctor who turns out to be a rat. The climactic scene takes place at a volcano. Along the way, the audience will learn the hula, a dance that Tchaikovsky never envisioned when he wrote the Nutcracker.

Undeniably wacky, The Dance-Along Nutcracker also possesses a big heart. Through its annual Community Ticket Program, dozens of tickets are granted to worthy non-profit organizations throughout the Bay Area. The annual show is also a major fundraiser for the non-profit San Francisco Lesbian/ Gay Freedom Band, allowing it to perform its “Community Concert Series” for free throughout the rest of the year.

A Charlie Brown Christmas - Live!  (Photo courtesy the San Francisco Symphony)

A Charlie Brown Christmas – Live! (Photo courtesy the New York Pops)


A Charlie Brown Christmas-Live! – San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

When Diana Byer, artistic director of New York Theatre Ballet, asked me to create a dance-pantomime based on A Charlie Brown Christmas for The New York Pops Christmas Concert at Carnegie Hall, I leapt at the opportunity. Like so many of my generation I grew up with the Charlie Brown holiday television specials and every year I still look forward to watching Charlie and Linus and the gang as they reveal the joy of the holiday season. The chance to bring Charlie Brown to life on stage, dancing to the brilliant Vince Lombardi score, has been a pure delight. The enthusiastic reception at Carnegie Hall and the excitement and anticipation for the upcoming San Francisco production is proof positive of the enduring power and heart-warming message of love and friendship expressed in A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

– Liza Gennaro, director and choreographer

Guest conductor Randall Craig Fleischer and soprano Lisa Vroman lead the young and young-at-heart on a whimsical journey in a live orchestral performance of Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In this special stage show, live singers, actors and dancers recreate some of Charles M. Schultz’ beloved characters and bring the iconic Christmas television special to life. The original smash hit performance at Carnegie Hall featured the New York Pops and the tiny but illustrious New York Theatre Ballet, whose choreographer has made the trek out west to restage the work.

The specially decked-out lobby of Davies Symphony Hall will offer up kid-friendly refreshments and Peanuts-themed activities for A Charlie Brown Christmas-Live!, that runs December 19-24, 2014.

Oakland Ballet in Waltz of the Flowers in Graham Lustig's Nutcracker (Photo: David DeSilva)

Oakland Ballet’s Waltz of the Flowers in Graham Lustig’s Nutcracker (Photo: David DeSilva)


The Nutcracker – Oakland Ballet Company, Paramount Theatre, Oakland

In the theatre, on the streets, in the schools – we extend our reach beyond just being being a professional company with an orchestra.

– Graham Lustig, Artistic Director, Oakland Ballet Company

OBC celebrates their 50th anniversary this spring, and while it’s been a rocky 50 years that mirror some of the ups and downs in their East Bay community, they continue to uphold many of that community’s lively and beloved traditions. One rare and beautiful touch to their Nutcracker is the live voices of children singing during Act II – courtesy of Oakland’s own Mount Eden High School Girl’s Choir. Fifty local students from The Academy of Oakland Ballet and the community participate in this production. 1500 free tickets are provided to local schools and communities.

And is there a venue more perfect for this magical tradition than Oakland’s Paramount Theater? Built in 1933 by San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger, this splendid Art Deco theatre was one of the first Depression-era buildings to incorporate and integrate the work of many creative artists into its architecture, uniting several artistic disciplines.

Lustig’s Nutcracker runs for two days only, December 20 and 21, 2014.


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