2014 Nutcracker Season, San Francisco Ballet

15 Dec

December 12 was San Francisco Ballet’s night to start its season of the Nuts, multiple castings, opportunities for corps members. With Martin West conducting the company’s orchestra, the audience enjoyed a remarkably buoyant performance, which can be partially attributed to its enormous success in Europe this summer. Mary Beth Smith, heading the company’s marketing and communications, remarked in the Opera House press room that after the company’s closing night performance at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, where Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes made its 1909 debut, “The applause went on for twenty minutes. It was spectacular, and you know Parisians know their ballet.” Following this performance, the company goes into a twice daily mode, two and seven p.m., a total of thirty performances, including two on Christmas Eve.

Friday night’s inauguration featured Ricardo Bustamonte with extra flourishes and complete gallantry, while Ruben Martin-Cintas and Katita Waldo made the Stahlbaums elegant, assured, hospitable. Jim Sohm outdid himself as Grandpapa; Kristi DeCaminada as Grandmere. Both parents and small fry were less numerous, but the numbers cohered in the overall scenic impression, avoiding the cast of thousands mould.

Clara Blanco danced her iconic doll, Esteban Hernandez made an impression as the Nutcracker out of the Box and Max Cauthorn in yellow Milliskin was willowy, off balance and technically excellent.

The transformation scene – from 1915 Panama-Pacific era privileged San Francisco to dream exaggeration of furniture, presents, tree, mice and gas fireplace – continues to be impressive; mice scamper, toy soldiers execute the directions of the Nutcracker with his sabre, while Clara watches avidly. Sean Orza’s Mouse King exhibited brawn, and elegaic agony after his leg was caught in the mouse trap, his dying crawl into the prompter’s pit, “Tis A Far Better Thing I Do’ from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

Luke Ingham as Nutcracker Prince cuts a refreshing athletic image once out of Mask and Nut trappings. He’s gallant, but no nonsense, like a good Aussie invariably seems to be; his battement a la seconde is eagle sharp. Not a bad mixture. Audrey Armacost as Clara responded well to his partnering.

The carriage arrival brings its own magic, its white and silver sleigh, pawing, prancing ponies, masks crowned with nodding plumes. I’m not sure the ancien regime could have improved on these equines.

The snow monarch roles were handsomely filled by Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro. who followed after the snowflakes appeared under drifts of artificial flakes continuing to fall, audibly, during the entire number until the final grouping around the principals was almost obscured by moving white density. Early on Domitro stumbled a bit; I suspect this artificial blizzard may have contributed. However, his grand jetes and entrechats were his standard brilliant, Zahorian sailing through her virtuosity with usual aplomb, her earlier injury definitely behind her.

After the intermission the curtain rose on the evocation of the Conservatory, with butterflies, lady bugs, and moths, marking time with port de bras and pique arabesques before the arrival of The Sugar Plum Fairy (SPF) in the person of Mathilde Froustey. Froustey possesses the current ideal for the feminine ballerina; beautiful proportions, long neck, face of piquant charm, port de bras devoid of angled elbow, good jump, supple expressive upper back, an intuitive emphasis in phrasing or response. A cogent example was her emphasis asking the Nut Prince “Why are you here?” Not a doubt about the query.

Luke Ingham’s mime was salutary, particularly good with whiskers. The SPF had decreed the entire dream troupe witness the recitation, a nice move. While the Spanish pas de cinq was good, the Arabian trio was especially well-balanced with Dana Genshaft, and Daniel Devison-Oliveira and Anthony Spaulding, intense, finished. Francisco Mungamba’s Chinese shone with knife-like jetes. The French trio danced my-not-so favorite variation spritely, Wan Ting Zhao’s phrasing eye-catching. The Russian Faberge trio burst out into Anatole Vilzak’s classic variation led by Hansuke Yamamoto with Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang.

Benjamin Stewart garnered a warm response as Smoky Bear with Louis Schilling and the bevy of San Francisco Ballet School students, precursor to the Waltzing Flowers, framing the SPF in this version of the Tchaikovsky classic. Bland, symmetrical and nicely executed, the ensemble is supposed to set off the central rose; Froustey could be better served. However, the ensemble requires its musical share and the notes received visualization with skill.

In this version the prelude to the Grand Pas de Deux refers to the Chinoiserie tower bibelot, Clara’s gift in the first act. The SPF retrieves a tiara from a cushion brought her by a uniformed attendant which she places on Clara’s head before leading her to the mirror inside the open box. Froustey’s brief escorting, was affectionate, a reinforcement shared with Sofiane Sylve who conveys similar feminine warmth.

The double doors close, the tower turned, the doors reopen and outsteps the adult Clara in hues of gold and celadon, Yuan Yuan Tan, ready to wow us, dispatches the gestures of awe and transforming admiration to the barest stroke, a principal flaw in an otherwise brilliant performance. Tan is becoming accustomed to Luke Ingham as a partner; she should feel utterly secure. Ingham promises Tan as good or better she enjoyed with Damian Smith; the partnering, particularly Tan’s height in the running catch as the Tchaikovsky score soars were. flawless. Tan’s face, with its feline qualities, registered satisfaction along with her usual aplomb.

The variation reprises then follow, to warm applause, and the aggregate ensemble coalesces to allow Drosselmeyer, couch and Clara to enter and for him to reassemble the Stahlaum mansion,for Clara to awaken, clutch her toy and run towards Mother Stahlbaum’s arms as the curtains descend.

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