Skip ‘The Nutcracker’; see Smuin Ballet’s ‘The Christmas Ballet’ instead

Keith Sutter/Courtesy

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It’s that time of year again — the time when people remember that ballet exists and go see “The Nutcracker.” Sure the little ginger snaps are adorable, and the local professional productions are pretty and all, but it’s time to shake the sugar plum habit and try something new.

Smuin Ballet’s “The Christmas Ballet” offers a festive alternative that will have you forgetting that mouse-infested candyland in no time. With a perfect combination of old favorites and brand new works, “The Christmas Ballet” is a delightful holiday tradition to come back to year after year.

After finishing its Bay Area tour, “The Christmas Ballet” is closing out its 23rd year on stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with shows through Dec. 24.

For old-school dance aficionados who prefer the clean lines and technical feats of traditional ballets, Act I — “Classical Christmas” — offers a pure ballet experience. However, even those who couldn’t tell a plié from a relevé can enjoy Act II, “Cool Christmas,” which has all of the technique with a whole lot more silliness.

For the most part, Act I is meditatively beautiful, and it acts as a reverent and celebratory nod to the great spiritual songs of the season. An exception to the serious tone (for which this Jewish reviewer is particularly grateful) is the hilarious “Licht bensh’n,” which manages to include Hanukkah in a Christmas show without even a single dumb song about dreidels!

If the silliness of “Licht bensh’n” is the exception in Act I, it is the rule in Act II. This year, “Cool Christmas” features tap dancing, droopy Christmas trees, a stage-length feather boa and professional dancers in onesies.

Many of the pieces in both acts were choreographed by the late Michael Smuin, and they carry his signature blend of grace and showmanship. But the performance also features several recent works including three world premieres, each showcasing a different side of Smuin Ballet’s talented dancers while maintaining thematic consistency with Smuin’s original choreography.

Amy Seiwert finished her tenure as Smuin’s choreographer-in-residence with the premiere of “Christmas Concerto.” Were it not for Seiwert’s penchant for expanding the physical and energetic boundaries of the dancers, “Christmas Concerto” might have blended in with the older works in Act I.

Yet of all of Seiwert’s works performed in “The Christmas Ballet,” her duet “River,” which she created last year, remains the most remarkable. “River” is a lusciously tender and evocative duet set to the Joni Mitchell song of the same name. Dancers Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz were transformed by it when the pair danced it Thursday — her liquid movements constantly on the verge of spilling over but never quite did so while he floated her just above the surface of the stage as if she was skimming water.

Keith Sutter/Courtesy

In fact, Yarbrough-Powell was exquisite in all of her performances. Most notably, she filled every inch of Smuin’s gut-wrenching rendition of “Ave Maria.” I must disclose that Yarbrough-Powell was a former teacher of mine, but the swell of the audience’s grateful sigh confirmed my bias.

Though she did not have any featured roles in Thursday’s performance, Valerie Harmon’s easy grace and expressive port-de-bras made her a standout new performer.

Other crowd favorites were former Smuin dancer Shannon Hurlburt’s guest appearance for his unbelievably intricate Irish step-dance-inspired tap solo “Bells of Dublin” and Erica Felsch’s sexy and silly “Santa Baby,” performed with the trenchcoat-clad men of the company.

Felsch also premiered a work she choreographed, “The Christmas Song,” which perfectly suited the infectious cheeriness of dancers Terez Dean and Mengjun Chen. Dancer Rex Wheeler also premiered his version of “Christmas Tree Rock” featuring a trickster Christmas tree which drew a hearty chuckle from the crowd.

Between the talented dancers, the stream of new choreography, the impeccable ballet and the joyous holiday spirit, Smuin earns their place as an integral part of any San Francisco Christmas tradition.

”The Christmas Ballet” is playing at the Yerba Buena Center through Dec. 24.

Contact Katie O’Connor at [email protected].