Archive | December, 2011

Mark Foehringer’s Nutcracker at Zeum Theater, San Francisco, December 21

23 Dec

Condensing the Nutcracker story to 45-50 minutes is quite a feat, but Mark Foehringer had assistance from Michael Morgan who heads the East Bay Symphony Orchestra, skillful costume designs by Richard Battle, adding swirls of yellow to the same color leotard to create the Spanish costume, matching the flouncy skirt of the same material. Peter Crompton’s stage design has a series of frankly fake props and banners  moving around at appropriate moments. To see the banners rise on four corners to delineate the stage was just as exciting as the growth of the tree.

Foehringer still manages to make the most of the shallow stage.  The steep angle of the seating allows the audience to see everything clearly; the cast of characters must engage their audience with little of the usual proscenium’s aesthetic distance.

This year Foehringer also enjoyed a stronger cast; as a result he started to tweak the stage business and characters with excellent effect.  Brian Fisher continues as Drosselmeyer, but the magical toy maker has several strong confrontations with his nephew, Chad Dawson, and a substantial share of tussles; the mice hoisting Clara, Norma Fong,  might be accused of sexual harassment. But everything trips along so fast there is no opportunity to file a report, particularly when Juan de la Rosa jumps from the mask of the Mice King to Father Tanenbaum and then into trepak garb.

Four little tots play soldiers with metallic helmets and Candyland goodies with
swirly cream topping cup cakes on their heads.  Adding to the double duty
roster was Lizanne Roman as Mme Tanenbaum and Mother Ginger, Thomas Woodman as the postman pushing the mouse package out the door.  The alternating notices are slightly confusing, but Fisher wound up faking Spanish style with either Melanie Hawkes or Deanna Woodman.

Norma Fong made a fetching Clara, her correct port de bra reaching down her nicely formed arms to her finger tips, slightly petulant, but equally willing to be
lead.  Chad Dawson provided mischief and an ardent support at appropriate moments.

But Fisher as Drosselmeyer provided the production’s ultimate dash with his
elan, his willingness to buffeted by the mice, his eloquent politesse of gesture,
energetic rendition of pirouettes and jetes and his reaction in each twist of
the tale.

It all makes for a mid-town Nut hard to crack, plus the lively little orchestral
ensemble, and Morgan’s adroit condensation of the Tchaikovsky score. Now if Drosselmeyer could lend his expertise by increasing the stage depth by, say, ten feet, WOW.

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Muriel Maffre with Stravinsky at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater, December 13

22 Dec

Though close to its closing, A Soldier’s Tale (in French l’Histoire du Soldat) has enjoyed an ingenious staging by Muriel Maffre and the theater’s director Tom Ross. With the  Igor Stravinsky score rendered by the Ear Play Ensemble, an effective set designed by Benjamin Pierce, players,  L. Peter Callender, as the narrator/ Joseph’s voice, Joan Mankin in various guises as the devil with Maffre  manipulating the four-foot puppet Joseph, the sardonic play hits its morality mark handsomely in its 75 minute running time.   Donald Pippin was responsible for the first-rate translation.

By way of introduction, the Aurora Theatre is celebrating twenty years of theatrical presentation. It is situated on Addison, just off Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, next door to Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  The roster of plays produced reflects a remarkable array of classic and contemporary playwrights, all produced  in arena style.

The story goes that Joseph, a soldier on leave trudging “down the long and dusty road,” is persuaded to surrender his violin to the Devil in exchange for a red book that foresees the future.  So doing he also accepts a three-day sleep- over. It turns him into a ghost when he reaches his village. it has been three years and his fiancee has married and borne two children.

Maffre guided Joseph, placing her hands into his sleeve and glove when Joseph
gestured or brushed away a tear.  She clumped him down the central ramp, held his fiddle while the narrator handled the bow. Her handling was particularly poignant when he learns his fiancé has married, a still and lengthy pause. From my view the emotion registered from the back in shoulder and head.

Joseph rails against the devil, but takes advantage of the red book and prospers, extravagantly.  He is alone, and lonely; seeking to play his violin again with an exchange and return visit by the Devil, the instrument emits only ugly sounds.  Feeling betrayed, he destroys the red book, throws his wealth over, setting out “down the long and dusty road” once more.

At a tavern he learns of a sick princess who would become the bride of anyone
curing her.  Joseph plays cards with the Devil to gain first place , deliberately losing his cash, plying him with liquor sufficient to having his adversary pass out and retrieving his violin.  Of course the Devil is livid. While Joseph wins the princess’ hand with the aid of his violin, sweet sounding once more.  The Devil warns if he steps outside  the small kingdom, his princess wife will die and he is lost.

Joseph’s curative violin playing provides the opportunity to see Maffre dance once more. Rising from a recumbent position, she stretches, reaches and reasserts active use of her legs and arms. Bursting with joy, her arms revolve above her head, her legs devour the arena stage space, a strong but delicate interlude to the Devil’s dire prediction.

A quiet interlude follows where the princess asks Joseph about his early life.
She suggests they visit his village, and he acquiesces, saying he could visit
his mother.  Taking the fatal step, the Devil appears to seal Joseph’s fate while’the princess expires behind a veil.  Smoke shoots around the base of the platform, the ramp lifts and the Devil shoves Joseph into hell’s abyss.

Callender made a commanding figure as the Narrator and Joseph’s voice; Mankin’s devil was strident, arms and fingers flung wide, face painted on one
side, a witch of Shakespeare as much as Hades’ host.  Maffre’s handling of
Joseph was skillful and tender, demonstrating her ability to apply years of
discipline in new directions.

Book Review: Longing for Elsewhere by Renee Gibbons

19 Dec

Book Review: Longing for Elsewhere by Renee Gibbons
San Francisco, 2011. 250 pp., $16.95, pbk.

Renee Gibbons has three photographs  in this page-turning paperback.  One is on the cover superimposed on a map of Dublin after Gibbons received her First Communion. The third in on the back where her handsome face is framed by fly-away white hair.  Facing the title page, the third dating from Paris in 1963, shows Gibbons as a young woman of compelling beauty, clarifying  this  memoir’s subtitle: “My Irish Voyage Through Hunger History and High Times.”

The Roman Catholic emphasis on children bearing for women, prohibiting abortion is fairly common knowledge, as is the devastating effect of bearing  children out of wedlock. This was exacerbated by brief liaisons in World War I.  The effect of doctrine and cultural reality is a constant undercurrent  in Gibbons’ random telling of her parents’ story and the effect it made on family life and survival.

So also is the popular notion of the Irish as alcoholics, inebriation shared in cold climates with long winter nights.  In Gibbons’ account of her father’s fondness for Guinness to the exclusion of food for the family makes one wonder how she was able to grow into the vibrant adulthood related in these highly readable pages.

What fascinates me was her capacity to survive with such tenacity and a sense of basic self-worth, although Gibbons states her present life also has included  years of psycho-therapy.  That she was able to travel and plumb her psyche for personal well-being makes for interesting juxtapositions.

From various journeys Gibbons recounts a particularly memorable incident or individual.  She also informs us of a sexual encounter with a friend’s father alienating her from the friend; of bearing a son alone in England and never seeing him, giving him up for adoption at birth; of being raped instead of consoled by a male friend after one of her girl friends died along with the baby in childbirth.

Gibbons also relates episodes in her San Francisco history, living here because
she met and married a longshoreman after consciously making the decision to
bear and raise a daughter on her own.  She has managed her “longing for elsewhere” while in a happy marriage; it includes feeding the homeless in Washington Square on Thanksgiving and organizing celebrations of Irish men of letters – James Joyce and Sean O’Casey in particular. It is Gibbons’ melange or pot au feu of such disparate elements and experiences which makes these modest pages so readable.  It is a tale of triumph, pluck, ingenuity and love, a special bravo in reading.

Ballet San Jose’s Nutcracker, San Jose’s Performing Arts Center, December 10

13 Dec

Ballet San Jose’s low profile this fall dissipated with the opening of its annual Nutcracker and Janice Berman’s feature on the San Francisco Classical Voice Website.  While the former was welcome, Berman’s coverage is not pleasant;  January 3 Ballet San Jose’s Guild will announce its decision regarding  the company, its spring season, Dennis Nahat’s fate and future artistic activity.  Apparently, when someone has given fourteen million dollars to a company’s coffers, he can dictate, determine hiring, repertoire, etc.  It’s a sad business. Stay tuned.

As Nahat and the late Ian Horvath envisioned The Nutcracker scenario over a quarter of a century ago in Cleveland, Ohio, it was very much a Euroopean affair in a stuffily furnished cold climate house, if long on hospitality. Maximo Califano assumed the Nahat role of Drosselmeyer with Roni Mahler as the all seeing parlor maid, Helga. The family name is now Tannenbaum, Ruth Ann Namey an attractive mother, Junna Ige Maria, Francisco Preciado the mischievous son.

The usual chaos occurs before Maria hunted for the nutcracker doll after the guests depart. Ballet San Jose’s small students assumed the roles of mice , taking on the company men who masquerade as toy soldiers.  The lively scene had Maria picking up the sword of the felled Nutcracker to thwack mortally the Mouse King. This unique version of the dispatch displayed Maria’s potential in adulthood.   Ramon Moreno, as Prince Alexis, emerged from the Nutcracker headdress to lead the petite Ige on their journey to the Imperial Throne Room in Moscow. En route they passed circuitously through Spain, some Arabic area and China before making it to the gates of Moscow where they were greeted by four Russian stalwarts.

Distinctive in Nahat’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s score and E.T.A. Hoffman is Maria and Prince Alexis’s constant activity en route to Moscow. In Snowland they replaced the usual monarchs of chill and snowflakes.  They danced Spanish-dusted steps in Spain, received a dash of oriental mystique in Arabic land and Alexis joined the guardians of Moscow’s portals. Ige and Moreno were not only well matched for size, but also for fleetness; Moreno’s grand jetes were arrow true, with long bow force behind them, while Ige’s stretch managed to sing in its brief flight.

Alexis, reunited with Mom and Pop, Jeremy Kovitch as Tsar Nicolai, Alexsandra Meijer as Tsarina Tatiana,  Alexis recounted the tale.  Mama rejoiced before rushing off to prepare for the Grand Pas de Deux, Kovitch gallantly supported Meijer’s classical line, marred by her belief cocking or stretching her head will add the final touch to the otherwise pristine.

Instead of head flower and blossoms, the Act II waltz is given to couples, the women with white satin gowns, the men in black tie and tails, swooping around the stage. Circling the space, the company completed its involvement with two or three roles  required of most dancers, met with considerable grace.

Prince Alexis carried Maria back to the chair near the fireplace where they first met, settled her in where she was discovered by her parents and carried off to bed.  Mother Tannenbaum noted  the change in garments, took a look at the mantelpiece where the small nutcracker rewarded her with a bow.  Mother T crossed the stage wondering, shrugged her shoulders as the curtain fell.

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker December 9

12 Dec

With San Francisco Ballet’s  handsome setting,Nutcracker time brings San Francisco audiences a nostalgia trip to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition  A cast familiar with their roles made the company’s  Nutcracker opening  warm and comfortable, almost as familial as those occupying the scarlet seats.

There was Val Caniparoli, jumping with elan at appropriate moments displaying the gusto of  Her Drosselmeyer with a hand flourish here, there, with eyes steady on the mark. Ricardo Bustamonte and Pascale LeRoy as the Stahlbaum parents were socially savvy and practiced while the grandparents Jorge Esquivel and Anita Paciotti reminded us old age still harbors youthful urges plus more than a smidgeon of elan.

For dancing dolls the Jack-in-the-Box requires a extremely limber male and soloist Garen Scribner fulfilled the role’s profile with supple back bends and final split. Clara Blanco has danced the beruffled pink doll almost since joining the company; stiffness of arm, rigid torso bend, cocked foot, awkward head movement with stock rigid kisses were honed to perfection. Daniel Baker’s Nutcracker was blessed with a strong, springy jump; his jab with the flimsy sword delighted the boys at the party.

The fight scene, with the sideboard magnified to allow the toy cannon and horses to emerge, seemed particularly lively, the mice pugilistic, muscle-demonstrating. Daniel Deivison as The Mouse King was particularly grandiose, gesturing to his troops, making slit throat gestures to The Nutcracker.  Nicole Finken’s Clara guided the mousetrap towards the monarch’s leg, enabling The Nutcracker to rise from the floor, delivering the fatal thrust.  The ruler’s final moments were a paean worthy of any melodrama before he frissoned into the orchestra pit.

The snow scene was nearly a blizzard before Vanessa Zahorian danced her final finger turns supported by Davit Karapetyan, both delivering stylish performances. The corps assignment, dance in a winter’s setting, possessed none of the swoop and swirl Lew Christensen gave the scene, nature reflected in dance.

From behind the mask and tunic Gennadi Nedvigin emerged with classic simplicity, total turnout, effortless elevation and unaffected courtesy. Following intermission his account of the battle was testimony to his Bolshoi training, flowing, easily comprehended, given full measure.  You wanted to get up and cheer; in Frances Chung’s Sugar Plum Fairy he enjoyed authoritative listening.
The flowers for the waltz as well as the insects gathered to hear the story, one of the few moments where the evocation of the Conservatory of Flowers looked occupied.  Despite moving the sleigh/grandstand seating to various positions, the stage image was bare, almost uninviting, although Anatole Vilzak’s Russian variation momentarily filled the void, led by an exuberant Pascal Molat with Daniel Baker and Benjamin Stewart.

Also invigorating were the men in the Spanish variation led by Isaac Hernandez with Diego Cruz and Francisco Mungamba with the posturing Dana Genshaft and Courtney Elizabeth flipping skirt hems and fans in elegant style..

Maria Kochetkova emerged from the kiosk as the transformed Clara, diffident, wide-eyed over her sudden change in size, costume and body contour.  She made  the pas de deux with Nedvigin an exploration, acknowledging him as a guide and protector, yet an authoritative interpretation, serene and sure. Their mutual  Bolshoi schooling was an added bond, making a consistent  presentation, a grand, unaffected simplicity, aware of themselves in space, a rare, satisfying spectacle.

Magic Transient Touches at Hermes

7 Dec

Let me lead you on a slightly circuitous path dripping with nostalgia before mentioning the magic inspiring this blog.

San Francisco’s Japantown has held a pull for me ever since the days of Hodo Tobase’s calligraphy classes at the Sotoji Zen Mission. It occupied a former Jewish Synagogue at Bush and Laguna Streets, now part of Kokoro, a senior residence for Japanese-Americans.

Skipping a decade, the Miharas, husband and wife, opened The Paper Tree, a stationery store, in the Japan Center in 1968, moving to the west side of the Buchanan Street Mall in their own building in 1974.  With the usual run of stationery goods, the Miharas stock special Japanese cards and papers.

Not the least of these paper  offerings continues to be designed for use in origami.  Origami, a word combining ori or folding with kami or paper, is the practice and art of folding paper.  It dates back to Japan’s classical or Heian period, but became a prevalent past-time during the Tokugawa era.

Linda Mihara, the Miharas’ daughter, started her adventure with origami to the point where The Paper Tree regularly displays origami art in its windows facing the Buchanan Street Mall.  The skill and patience represented catches one’s spirit.

During a recent visit for The Paper Tree’s  great ballpoint pens, Father Mihara announced proudly that Linda’s work was being displayed in Hermes on Maiden Lane at Grant Avenue, additional examples destined for  the Beverly Hills branch.  I learned Linda created a Victorian house two years ago for a Mitsubishi ad.

Dazzled with my discovery, Rika Ashihara at Cal Bank Trust  showed me a paper bull fashioned from a U.S. one dollar bill, constructed so the bull possessed two small eyes.

This afternoon I ventured to Union Square and Grant Avenue with origami on my agenda.  The building Hermes occupies earlier housed Saks Fifth Avenue, perhaps Crate and Barrel.  Now its windows are festooned for the holidays with brilliant scarves  flying between small white paper horses or draped around thoroughbred sized white horses heads.  The folds are clearly visible, the artifice plain, the skill undeniable, the effect magical.  See them if you venture down to San Francisco’s Union Square this holiday season, goal enchantment.

Trey McIntyre Project at Zellerbach November 17

5 Dec

The Trey McIntyre Project appearance was a dazzling one-night stand leaving most of the audience standing and thumping with pleasure over the energy expended on stage.  We got three works that had been created in 2007, last August and  this year at and for divergent venues; Memphis, Vail and New Orleans, “In Dreams,”, “Gravity Heroes,” “The Sweeter End.”

Each work  managed to be the same and different, thanks to the classical base, clear in every move each dancer made.  But the three works also chronicled today’s American youth; a fluid continuous line was rare; the impulse never quite flowed down the arm or leg without a syncopation, a knee rising, a foot cocked, and elbow cutting the arm line, the torso, the head flexing forward, sideways, not always together. The dancers had even mastered the sliding neck movement, the side-to-side dislocation which is a clue in Indian classical dance to the sringara rasa,  “the erotic sentiment,’ and please use South Asian tones when speaking the phrase, for the lovely, rounded Indian connotations, to make  the cell-phone generation appearance bemusing.

The first two ballets used five dancers, three girls and two boys, but managed not to make the uneven distribution a matter of contention.  For “The Sweeter End,” the quirks moved into high gear, thanks to the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  The NOLA audience must have relished every cocked eyebrow,
and dipped shoulder. There were hints of “The Saints” marching in, the standard  music played at The Second Line following a burial ceremony;  mostly the selections “St. James Infirmary”, “Trouble in Mind” and “Yellow Moon” captured the indefinable ambiance of The French Quarter, NOLA weather and the music.

In the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties, the Joffrey Company reflected American youth along with the rest of their repertoire.  It’s safe to say that Trey McIntyre Project speaks to that need in these early decades of the twenty-first century.  It will be fascinating to see time and the Project reinforcing each other.