Bay Area choreographer Rex Wheeler’s new dance for Smuin’s 2016 edition of “The Christmas Ballet” is rooted in a favorite memory of singing “We Three Kings.”
“The carol sounded so beautiful, with a sweeping, waltz-y quality, and it had dynamic changes. I thought that if people liked singing it, surely they would like to watch a dance to it,” says the London-born Wheeler, who recalled performing the song as a teen in church in England.
At the time, he was attending The Royal Ballet boarding school. At Christmas, parents were invited to a student program, led by a passionate music teacher, Wheeler says.
“None of us were aspiring singers; but we had to make it happen,” says Wheeler, whose training led to dance jobs with Slovak National Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, and now Smuin, where he’s in his second season, as a performer and choreographer.
Wheeler’s three-minute “We Three Kings,” a dance for three couples, is in the classical first act of “The Christmas Ballet,” which is onstage in Mountain View this week and San Francisco next week.
Perhaps overly familiar with the staple “Nutcracker,” Wheeler was pleased that Smuin artistic director Celia Fushille asked him to create something new for this year’s holiday show.
“Having a theme made it easier to get into festive spirit and the music and excitement,” adds Wheeler,calling the experience “more fun and playful than you might normally experience.”
With the second half of “The Christmas Ballet” focusing on more popular styles, Wheeler says the entire show “lights up the stage in a way that’s so different and personal; it’s charming and endearing.”
Wheeler, who has been in California for six years (and has an American mother, who grew up in Mountain View) seems to have found the perfect home at Smuin, calling the troupe “the perfect bridge between contemporary and classical.”
While he loves setting dances to classical music (Kenneth MacMillan has been a source of inspiration), he also enjoys working with movement that falls outside traditional ballet.
He doesn’t routinely perform in pieces he creates, calling the two “quite different concerns.”
As a choreographer, he pays attention to shapes, structure and “whether things look good to an audience,” and as a dancer, he thinks, “What can I do to perfect this step?”
When the rare occasion occurs when he has to appear in a dance he choreographed, he says, “It can be startling,” realizing that he’s given the dancers a task he calls “actually quite difficult.”
IF YOU GO
Smuin The Christmas Ballet
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 7-9, 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 10, 2 p.m. Dec. 11
Tickets: $27 to $52
Note: Performances also are Dec. 15-24 and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.