Archive | December, 2017

Twelve Years with the Tomasson Nutcracker

19 Dec

It actually could be thirteen which would make San Francisco Ballet’s current production of The Nutcracker a genuine adolescent. With the locale as 1915 San Francisco and the Panama-Pacific Exposition, Tomasson’s team of designers came up with a local winner, the Exposition which gave us the makings of the current Japanese Tea Garden, the Palace of Fine Arts and the landfill now known as The Marina. It also gave “Baghdad by the Bay” its first taste as a convention town; you only need to read how many organizations and fraternal associations used the Fair as its excuse to come to San Francisco. Plus the seasonal production of Nutcrackers everywhere functions as one of the biggest moneymakers in a ballet company’s fiscal projections; San Francisco’s prices are jaw-dropping.

For anyone with a sense of local history, the opening slides are a bit like Henry Lewis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots,” and any one with relatives three or four generations back, the nostalgia can get pretty heavy. I mustn’t get started, for such facts can delude one into thinking they own the place, impossible with current technology.

There were several “firsts” in attending the 2017 opening December 14 for me; I don’t think I am totally wrong to think there have been added touches in the execution and dash of certain roles, along with the projection of a mass of roses in the opening moments of Act II.

Reuben Martin-Cintas, both faculty member of San Francisco Ballet’s School and listed as a principal character actor, was a pleasant, but mainly neutral principal dancer during his active career with the company, noted for his height and skillful partnering. His reading of Herr Drosselmeyer revealed the capacity to involve himself throughout, both a surprise and pleasure.

As Harlequin in the first act Max Cauthorn stretched yellow-Milliskin legs and torso with singular aplomb followed by Lauren Parrot as the pink tutu and heavily curled doll so admired by Clara before James Sofranko danced, hidden behind a bear skin which must have been very warm. Doll and Harlequin skimmed across the stage in Clara’s opening dream. There were the usual dances, the tussles over the Nutcracker Drosselmeyer provides Clara, the girls cradling their dolls to be interrupted by the drums and horns of the boys.

The transformation scene of the Stahlbaum living room magnifies not only the Christmas tree traditionally rising to monumental heights, but transforms the packages into a minor labyrinth giving the mice a handy cover; the fireplace and sideboard provide the space for the Nutcracker/Prince to position himself and the gun battery of the soldiers to emerge. From the package heights the Rat King stands in all his egocentric glory, his grandiosity and protesting downfall conveyed with gusto by Jean-Paul Simeon.

This may have been the first time I’ve seen Joseph Walsh in a traditionally classic role and was I impressed; his was a la seconde steady at 45 degrees. In particular, his wonderful mime at the opening of Act II was clear and so well phrased. His partnering Maria Kochetkova was also admirable.

Let me insert my admiration for Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz as the Monarchs of the Snow ending Act I, impeccable. Frances Chung’s sense of proportion is breath-taking to witness; for my money, she is San Francisco Ballet’s Margot Fonteyn. For whatever reason, these roles deserve curtain calls they never get.

As for Act II itself, it looks as if a mass of bouquets has been added to the filigree decor which heretofore has provided a near bland backdrop for the traditional variations. The production team might consider more filigree for further distinction.

Sasha de Sola presided with distinction over the brood of bugs, butterflies and roses, serene and technically secure. As for the variations Lonnie Weeks’ elevation in the Chinese was notable and the trio in the Russian invariably welcome with Esteban Hernandez in the middle, flanked by Messrs Wharton and Kessler. The Gaiety trio with the flutes still looks floosy and Mother Ginger is diverting with the bear adding a head stand to his usual antics. Finally, Clara enters a grown-up size of her Christmas gift to be whirled around and emerge as Maria Kochetkova. Her pas de deux with Joseph Walsh lacked for nothing save perhaps a smidgeon of warmth.

I forgot to mention that one enduring period touch of luxe in the production can be noted on the mother escorting her daughter to Drosselmeyer’s shop for a last minute gift. Le dernier cri of the early twentieth century’s women’s fashion, the late Martin Packledinaz brushed shoulders with genius with that one. In addition, San Francisco Ballet was handing out small white with black dot cuddly toys to the first 500 children under twelve arriving on opening night plus planning the same generosity three additional evenings before Christmas; it was a charming touch seeing the recipients with pleasantly dazed looks on their faces.

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Cal Performances Returns The Nut to Us, Mark Morris Style

17 Dec

From now through December 24, Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Campus will host The Mark Morris Dance Company’s take on the E.T.A. Hoffman tale set to music by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Hard Nut, with prices ranging from $26-$163. It is a holiday investment totally worth the price, particularly if you enjoy laughter with your culture. Colin Fowler directs the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir Ensemble provides the expansive non-verbal chorus in Act I.

Premiered at the la Monniae, La Opera Nationale,in Brussels in 1991 during the company’s sojourn in Belgium, that engagement announcement is reproduced in the program. Cal Performances sponsored the West Coast premiere in 1996. This year’s engagement is the twelfth after a hiatus of five years and demonstrates the production has weathered its quarter century of life quite well.

I imagine the Brussels audience found the production as startling as I did the first time – the “modren” decor of a home owing more to Dr. Stalbaum’s successful practice than traditional aesthetics and to the influences of Hollywood during its “glamour” period, skillfully assembled by Adrienne Lobel’s set design. Sans question, the costumes of the late Martin Pakledinaz mixes basic colors, aching pink, with carnival and second hand store fashions cheeky beyond measure. The program notes credit cartoonist George Burns as the inspiration for the production, witnessed by the prevalence of black and white throughout; the starker images plus the soldiers in the fight scene with the mice certainly confirm his work as visual source.

What Morris provides is wit, double takes, and opportunity for frequent audience chuckles and applause. A TV provides entertainment for the Stahlbaums’ three children at opening curtain, but with the image of a hearth with a burning fire, nothing so earthy as wooden logs and genuine flames. The Christmas tree has been sprayed dead white. The children. Fritz, Marie and Louise, not only contest with each other, but with company as well and later attack their gifts, with avaricious destruction to the wrappings. From Mama Stahlbaum, portrayed with self-absorbed yet gentle cheek, John Hegenbotham is memorable. Mark Morris conveys Dr. Stahlbaum whose manner conveys all the discipline, timing of the operating theatre and inability to function calmly to anything lacking surgical procedure of check, countercheck and confirm. He gestures and sometimes his hands do filigrees, as does Mme Stahlbaum instead of pirouettes.

The African-American maid, en pointe mind you, as well as cross-dressed, is now danced by Brandon Randolph with liquid skill and well-timed flouncing. Billy Smith’s Drosselmeyer possesses just the right aura of the sinister and sarcasm to offset the spunk of Lauren Grant, flawlessly owning the role of Marie since its Belgian inception. Aaron Loux’s young Nutcracker/Prince dances with Drosselmeyer in an expansive pas de deux where he is mentored in his role as the Nutcracker prince before he provides a distinct foil for Grant’s Marie. Don’t’ let me forget the near psychodelic-garbed Rat King, essayed by Utafumi Takemura.

Morris’ snow scene is a wonder of invention and guffaw with its barefoot, mixed gender snow creatures in short skirts and maxi-bras, moving horizontally across the stage, arms in bent wing fashion, flinging fistfuls of phony snow at the punctuations in Tchaikovsky’s score, eliciting gurgles of delight from the audience. This skillful, cheeky invention is repeated for the Waltz of the Flowers where the gender babes are gowned like wilted tulips [a reference to the area of origin?] coming in diagonals on stage like drooping boatmen minus ropes, before cavorting through the melodies as if they were given a heavy spritzing, with lines allowing Mama Stahlbaum to parade decorously from upstage to downstage center, as well as to stage right and stage left.

The Act II variations reveal the constant winners: Arabian and Russian. In the former Elisa Clark, fully gowned, face covered, hooded in diaphanous grey-green-blue with a pile of small shimmering circles, accompanied by four protectors in darker burkas, moving towards the Prince; and on the right notes, those circles shake. The sextet of Russians are featured with layers of colors, separated, which lightly flutter as they move with robust energy. Then, instead of shepherdesses, the Mirlitons are two very urban French couples maneuvering, clear physical sarcasm between the sexes, with each other, semi-oblivious of Marie and the Prince.

The grand pas de deux becomes a dance of persuasion with Marie hesitant at first. The Prince, however, is persuasive and Marie smiles a bit goofily before realizing she has what she wants free of her siblings, and then responding enthusiastically.

The finale brings us back to the Stahlbaum black and white condo, the tellie on with Fritz and Louise watching. To their dismay, they see Marie on the screen before shortly being driven to bed by the Housekeeper who turns off the tellie, flitting through that white door and the curtain drops. It’s a thorough treat.

Wendy Whalen with Brian Brooks: Their Take on Words

2 Dec

SF Performances presented Wendy Whalen and choreographer/partner Brian
Brooks at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco November 29 and 30 with the all male string quartet Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Coirds and Michael Nicolas). While an absorbing sixty minutes, the ovation reported was not a total one, but those standing were clearly moved, and rightly so. The program was titled Some of a Thousand Words, which seemed to refer to the honored Chinese adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

I am sorry San Francisco didn’t see Whalen when she was active with the New York City Ballet; hers is a diagrammatic classicism, even in modern work, which I believe Leonardo Da Vinci would have applauded, and, probably, would have sketched. Her proportions, her use of the body, the phrasing and her lurking pleasure comes across unforced, along with that admirable focus which tells you why she is such a ballerina worthy of the title.

The program was divided into five parts with the final number, First Fall created in 2012, commissioned by Damian Woetzel for the 2012 Vail International Dance Festival and utilizing Philip Glass String Quartet No. 3, the Mishima; it was the only piece where the Quartet actually appeared as a quartet. The previous movements were executed to the very minimalist music of Jacob Cooper, Tyondal Braxton, Colin Jacobsen.

The violin, viola or cello player was placed on a platform upper stage right and the stage itself had as its adornment a backdrop half way down displaying a richly-curved, repetitive series of figures which might also be found in fabric or embroidery evoking the baroque, surely an interesting contrast to the two dance figures moving in front of it.

Whalen and Brooks, in tee-shirts and slim grey trousers, appeared from opposite sides of the stage, she from the right, he from the left, coming to the center to commence sustained arm movements emanating from the shoulders and circling or swooping, sometimes in mutual direction, other times in opposition, in place or pacing slightly, the simplicity of the undertaking accenting the quality of articulation in the feet. I felt commonality, a subtle undercurrent of affection,remaining an undercurrent. Very little use of the elbow seemed to occur; with the baroque-like hanging background, I wondered whether this might be a new take on those balletic beginnings at Versailles. If it came at all close, the music denied it. Only at the end to the Glass music was there any hint at melody, although my sense of the subterranean exploration of male-female relationships was a lingering impression, whether standing or with the use of two chairs. An interesting touch noted: Whalen’s hair was braided but freed in the final number.

In the fifth segment, after both Whalen and Brooks had executed solos, they had changed costumes to white, though shirt and trouser style remained the same. This consisted of a series of falls by Whalen, caught by Brooks and slight lifts, in several directions and places on the stage, remarkable for the full-bodied nature of Whelan’s backward collapse, a dead weight. Brook’s frequent construction worker like catching of her weight pronounced it “all in a day’s work”; yet the simplicity, the movement quality spoke of elegance. While it wasn’t the only feature in this final duet, the fall and retrieval was fascinating enough to speculate on just where and how often it might occur.

Dance, like this, can be a very naked art, no tutus, no elegant, braid-encrusted tunic. The comfort of the relationship remained a foremost impression, dance practiced by two accomplished adults. It is little wonder that a handful in the audience rose spontaneously in their seats.