Archive | December, 2018

The Smuin Christmas Ballet December 22

26 Dec

The Smuin Christmas Ballet program provided a update on the company’s development: a permanent home. Artistic director Celia Fushille mentioned starts renovation in February with opening planned for August. Sam Whiting’s article in San Francisco’s Chronicle stated two million dollars are still needed for the undertaking.

For Smuin’s quarter century mark, it’s a definite achievement; it’s also amazing that Michael’s ensemble has sustained itself for twenty-five years, considering his unexpected death, eleven years ago, in 2007. Bravos are due the board, the dancers and Fushile’s direction for this achievement.

The program further listed not only Michael’s chronology, but by the numbers how many performances there have been of The Christmas Ballet, the variety of numbers for both Acts I and II, Michael’s choreographic contributions for the season, as well as the guest choreographers, including Amy Seiwert. Some production facts and of course the fiscal supporters, organizations and individuals are listed.. Also noted is the fact that Lori Laqua is now the company’s Managing Director; if you know anything about Lori’s achievements, Smuin Contemporary Ballet has truly scored in the administrative arena.

The Christmas Ballet continues to have the opening projection scrim laden successively with Renaissance era depictions of angels, cherubs and antique musical instruments while a recording blares with appropriate choral music.
When the curtain opens, the effective drapery falls at the back and sides of the stage while the dancers, back to the audience are arrayed in multi-hued, near eccleastic splendor to the declarative exultation of the “Magnificat.” Turning to the audience, the dancers are in white. The men’s costume is a welt-edged tunic and tights and the women similarly dressed, but with a short skirt which is seen on and off during the feminine half of Act I.

From this familiar salute to the Noel tradition the “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” remains a satisfying reminder of European tradition. Terez Dean Orr, Ian Buchanan and Ben Needham-Wood appeared in “Mozart’s Gratias of his Mass in C Minor.” This number and Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, evocatively rendered by Erica Felsch, were Smuin’s creations from his days as co-artistic director of San Francisco. The “Ave Maria” was created in memory of Cobbett Steinberg and first danced by Evelyn Cisneros at a memorial gathering in the Veterans’ Building Green Room.

Two cultural juxtapositions were reflected in “The Gloucestershire Wassail” with an erect posture with thrusting jumps, a reflection of custom similar to Irish clogging tradition where the legs do all the work while the torso remains still. The contrast was delivered by the wonderful klezmer melodies, “Licht Bensh’n” and “Dobra Notsch,” happily rendered by Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Ben Needham-Wood. The company’s traditional finale, Bach’s “Jauchzet Frohlocket” followed.

Intermission over, the “pop” section started with projections of children’s drawings of Christmas themes, invariably bold, frequently goofy and sure to put any audience in a mood for off-beat takes on popular holiday tunes.

Erica Felsch’s concoction for Nat King Cole rendition of “The Christmas Song” featured Terez Dean Orr and Mengjun Chen in bright pajamas cavorting before holiday trappings. Company members in holiday red join them briefly before Ian Buchanan danced “Drummer Boy,” his sticks sharply emphasizing the melody’s highlights.

“Winter Weather” preceded the constant holiday favorite, Eartha Kitt’s rendition of “Santa Baby” with Erica Felsch’s distinctive interpretation, her classical chops and silhouette making one want to see her attack some balletic warhorses.

Smuin-Christmas-Ballet-3-Santa-Baby_Keith-Sutter

Santa-Baby_Keith-Sutter

“Blue Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” preceded Lauren Pschirrer’s long-limbed exposition of “La Calandria,” sarape and huge hat emphasizing her opening pointe work.

After the cutsey “Christmas Island,” including a Santa cap on the shark, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” Judy Garland’s voice supported Erica Felsch’s pas de deux danced by Valerie Harmon and Peter Kurta for “Meet Me in the City for Christmas.”

“Christmas Tree Rock” followed before Amy Seiwert’s take on Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a pas de deux to which Terez Dean Orr and Ben Needham-Wood danced with a sad tenderness suitable for the lyric content.

The program ended with two full company renditions: “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and Der Bingle’s voice recalling “White Christmas.” At the finale, the confetti began to fall on the center orchestra and the company dashed across the stage flinging handfuls of the white stuff.

Would that the Smuin budget permit live music ever so occasionally.

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Mark Foehringer’s Version of The Nutcracker

24 Dec

Sometime ago I read a quote of Mark’s mentioning that children’s attention span doesn’t really span the entire Petipa-Ivanov Nutcracker with all the lovely music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He gave this as justification for his 50-minute version of the Christmas classic, which closed its run at the December 23 afternoon performances at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theatre. The Cowell’s entrance, by the bye, has been moved to the east side of the pier so there’s little danger you, your umbrella or any companion getting swept off the walkway.

Out of the Foehringer’s twenty-three year existence in the Bay Area, and the formation of Mark Foehringer Project/SF, his Nutcracker Sweets is celebrating its first decade, with clear evidences of evolution. It initially started at the Moscone Center in the Zeum Theater. It must have been staged for several seasons – I know I saw it some two of three years there.

This is the first year I’ve seen the production at The Cowell where Mark’s version of the story line continues, enhanced with a small musical ensemble led this year by Keisuke Nakagoshi, but overall direction by Michael Morgan, and various instrumentalists alternating. The emphasis here is that Mark has insisted and managed to keep the production value of live music; for that alone he deserves multiple bravos.

Key to the success of the performance lies in Matthew Antaky’s lighting, Morgan of course, with Frederic O. Boulay, production maestro and Peter Crompton’s scene and media design. In addition to veterans Lizann Roman Roberts and Heather Cooper, Megan Kurashige provided a winsome Clara. Dancers Raphael Bourmaila, Logan Learned and Moses Kaplan have chosen residence in the Bay Area and lend their professional experience to major and multiple male roles. Capping it all, of course, is Brian Fisher, Mark’s original and continuing Drosselmeyer, swirling that perfectly wonderful, extravagant cape.

The costumes, credited to Richard Battle, are for the most part, colorful with dashes of whimsy and geometric design. Clara’s gown, Empire Style, masked her waist; Cooper’s Mother Ginger, Robert’s Sugar Plum Fair and Sonja Dale’s Spanish displayed their lithe lines. Why not Clara?

While I have not detailed the performance itself, the production has been enhanced by a liberal number of snowflake projections, young children from ODC’s Youth/ Teen Program in the battle scene and the steadfast support of Gary Lindsay, who serves as MFDPSF manager. The printed program has become four-colored and Paybill sized after the initial newsprint, folded and color-limited.

One special touch was noted in the Cowell Lobby: children’s picture books to divert the young and assist the parents while waiting for the theatre doors to open. Clearly, the Foehringer team possesses genuine empathy for parents and offspring during the holiday season. May it continue for seasons to follow.

San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 Nutcracker

16 Dec

There was some glorious dancing on stage, but the December 12 opening of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker also featured the introduction of the area’s dance writers to You You Xia, San Francisco Ballet’s replacement for Kyra Jablonsky. Kyra opted this summer to return to school to study international relations. Her associate, Rena Nishijima, also elected to return to school, the University of Chicago, for a master’s degree in business.

I, for one, awaited the replacement with some curiosity. Xia is from Texas and the University at Austin, then an arts administration course at NYU and a stint at a New York Agency specializing in performing arts. Xia followed this experience by handling public relations and press first with the Seattle Symphony before coming to a similar position with the San Francisco Symphony. Now SFB has acquired You You Xia’s services and for me she’s a handsome addition.

Opening night was its usual degree of pandemonium; darting children, parents trying to negotiate their offspring through crowds indifferent to the bottleneck between the main foyer and side entrances, particularly young adults taking photos on their cell phones, further cramped by concession booths. There was a overall sense the opening night audience wasn’t so much ballet-minded as seasonal observers; across the aisle someone attempted to take a picture; I
hissed and the phone was dropped.

I can remember several seasons back a real beaut of a family whose restless darling continually spoiled the narrow window to watch the ballet unfold. The next season, I had an aisle seat and San Francisco Ballet also had instituted booster seats for the young. I understand the Opera House is scheduled to replace its seats in the next year or two and perhaps losing a hundred or so. Evolution is still with us.

Val Caniparoli provided us with a dashing Drosselmeyer; his way with a cape and his gestural flourishes were not only well timed, but what one expects in a mysterious Mr. Fixit. Jean-Paul Simoens gave us a tall, competent parent as did Elziabeth Mateer; Jim Sohm has honed and embellished his grandpere role.

When it came to the dancing dolls, I wish the toy Nutcracker and the Harlequin had been identified, but both Mingxuan Wang and Hansuke Yamamoto were effective; which ever one was the Harlequin proved remarkably fluid. Lauren Parrott danced a convincing doll, conveying the inanimate, akin to the skill of Clara Blanco’s rendition.

Nutcracker

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

Kyla Lisette Paez Marcus’s Clara projected a nice balance of deference and eagerness plus a touch of the maternal when retrieving the Nutcracker from the tree. Like most Claras, the transition to sleep is just too abrupt; it needs to start some where on the search for her new toy.

Michael Yeargan’s design provides its excitement during the transformation scene, with the wiggly arrival of the mice, and the sudden solid presence of Aaron Robison as the adult Nutcracker. Sean Orza does his best as the Mouse King, but with the mousetrap maneuver and his ignominious drop into the orchestra he gets a little shortchanged.

Robison’s emergence from the Nutcracker mask infused the stage with a noticeable exhale, a largeness solidified by a menage of jetes before inviting Clara to jump into his arms and join him to circle space.

Nutcracker

Aaron Robison in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

Transformed Nutcracker and Clara leave the stage with the wonderful prancing white steeds and cart to give way to the near blizzard Snow Scene presided over elegantly by Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno with their sixteen silver white flakes. I continue to wonder why the two monarchs never rate a curtain call before intermission.

Act II replicates faintly the Conservatory of Flowers, with school students as ladybugs and butterflies, making way for the regal warmth of Sofiane Sylve as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clearly a friend of Drosselmeyer, she inquires why Clara and the Nutcracker Prince made it to her realm and she invites her subjects to listen to the story. Robison’s mime was large and clearly gestured, his acknowledgment of Clara’s role clearly endorsing #Me Too. Sylve’s attention was riveting.

The variations follow – Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, French, Russian, Madame du Cirque and her Buffons before the Waltz of the flowers. WanTing Zhao was supple in the Arabian, cramped up in the genie pot at beginning and end, well supported by Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Steven Morse; Lonnie Weeks’ Chinese displayed noticeable elevation; Esteban Hernandez with David Occhipinti and Myles Thatcher burst through their Faberge eggs into the Anatole Vilzak divertissement remaining in the holiday repertoire.

Sylve’s Waltz of the Flowers exuded brio, waist-high grand jetes, emerging as the new bud in the midst of the final floral pose.

Sasha de Sola, Clara adult-sized, emerged from her enlarged, faceted tower, to smooth her dress and greet her Prince. What followed was distinct chemistry; secure balances, noteworthy grand jetes and double tours,[slightly marred by hunching], secure leaps to the shoulders, multiple supported pirouettes signalling the delightful sense of “Am I really seeing this?” Sizable dancers providing equally large excitement.

Nutcracker

Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

With Ming Luke’s spirited conducting, it was a Nutcracker worth any imperfect foyer maneuvering.

I neglected to mention this opening night performance was dedicated to Joceyln Vollmar’s memory, who died July 13 at age 92; Vollmar danced William Christensen’s Snow Queen in 1944, the first U.S. production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

Nancy Johnson Poulos

9 Dec

The obituary section of the San Francisco Chronicle carried the news of
Nancy Johnson Poulos’ death November 4. As with the death of Jocelyn Vollmar in July, two of the stalwarts of Lew Christensen’s early artistic direction have slipped into history. Typically, Nancy requested no funeral or memorial. That seems pretty characteristic of Nancy; she had more than a slight streak of “been there, done that,” content simply to move on.

While I interviewed Nancy for The Montclarion of Hills Publications back in 1993 or thereabouts, the interview carried little of the sense of a woman remarkable not only in her clear accomplishments, but also her ability to be active in an artistic endeavor at a crucial juncture in its history. She seemed unusually able to move in and out of activities at a cross roads in the organization’s history devoid of fuss, without trumpeting her role, while making a contribution worthy of description.

I remember Nancy vividly in her dancing days with San Francisco Ballet, two especially remaining with me. When Lew Christensen premiered Con Amore in 1954 at what is now Herbst Theatre in the Veterans Building, Van Ness at McAllister, Nancy was cast as the errant wife, confined at home by her husband. But house arrest was no hindrance to the wife’s admirers; they knocked successively at her door, finding various hiding places as the next swain arrived, only to be accosted by her husband before the scene shifted abruptly with the Amazon soldiers started calling for Cupid; it was and remains a stylish, effervescent ballet. Though Tanaquil Le Clerq took over the role with New York City after Nancy and Sally Bailey, the Amazon Queen-Captain, danced their respective roles at New York City’s City Center Theater for New York City Ballet’s first performances of Lew’s ballet, Nancy’s sensual classicism was indelible.

The second memorable ballet was Lew’s Beauty and the Shepherd with Conrad Ludlow as Paris and Nancy as Helen. I would be hard put to remember the exact sequence in which Athena and Juno appeared and who even danced Venus; but I do remember Nancy’s appearance as Helen, head bent slightly, moving in classic correctness marked, I repeat, with one of the most sensual qualities I have witnessed in more than a half century watching classical ballet.

Nancy married Richard Carter who became San Francisco Ballet’s premier danseur and soon she left active dancing to teach through her first pregnancy. The Carters moved to San Diego as the artistic team with San Diego Ballet, and I remember Nancy’s invitation to the Pacific Regional Ballet Festival to dance in San Diego for its third festival. The 1968 Festival was indeed held in San Diego. There was some controversy stirring around them at the time, and it wasn’t long before the Carters returned to Marin County to be in charge of the Marin Center Box Office. Somewhere around this period the Carter marriage floundered, Nancy and Richard divorcing.

Nancy presided over a booking management during the short-lived touring program undertaken by the California Arts Council before moving into arts presentations until joining the San Francisco Symphony during construction of Davies Symphony Hall with her title of Operations Manager. I remember seeing Nancy in a white hard hat at some juncture, looking self-possessed, her invariable interest focused on what was happening. It was during this time that Nancy met Steven Poulos with whom she would spend the next thirty plus years as his wife, expanding her horizons to India.

In 1982, after Russell Hartley’s Archives for the Performing Arts was rescued from Mill Valley and revived with the aid of the late Richard Le Blond, then executive director of San Francisco Ballet, and Robert Commanday, music critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, needed an executive director for what now is called The Museum of Performance and Design. Nancy stepped in with the aid of Alan Becker and they managed to acquire a tiny south facing space in what once was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Nancy’s final contribution to the San Francisco ballet world was a decade managing San Francisco Ballet’s school during the first years of Helgi Tomasson’s direction of the company. I was in her office when she saw Helgi crossing the War Memorial Court en route to the ballet building. She rose from her desk, and, standing by the window, waved to him; he smiled in return. Though it was nearly a decade later before I interviewed her for Hills Publications, that functional, friendly greeting still strikes me as Nancy’s ability to be warmly active in the moment

Post-script: I stand corrected for the date of Con Amore‘s premiere. According to Nancy Reynold’s Repertory in Review, relating to 40 years of New York City Ballet, both the San Francisco and New York City Ballet premieres of the work occurred in 1953. Reynolds credits the initial venue as the San Francisco Opera House, but it was what is now Herbst Theatre. I was there for the occasion and Leon Danielian was Sally Bailey’s Bandit.

Oakland Ballet’s Civic Triumph at the Paramount Theatre

1 Dec

2018 is the second year Oakland Ballet has collaborated with the Mexican dance groups in the Oakland area to present a two-day, three performance celebration of the Dias de los Muertos, the Mexican Celebration of November 1, All Soul’s Day. It was a civic triumph, reflected by community-related corporate support and the inclusion of two folkloric groups, NHUL Ehekati and Co. and Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza. Artistic director Graham Lustig has provided a singular contribution for the current dance scene, continuing the special gifts to Oakland and the Bay Area Ronn Guidi bestowed with his Ballets Russes reconstructions from the Diahilev era..

I believe 2017 was the initial celebration, but this year marked a full-out fiesta ambiance with food in the Paramount Theatre Lobby and two de la Muertos altars, only one of which I was able to view. Let me tell you it was handsome with finely crafted clay figures, redolent of Mexican folk life.

I wish I had brought a camera, not alone for the altars, but also for the lively audience; I felt they owned the space that the collaborative performance brought to Oakland’s Paramount Theatre.

Nahul Ehekati and Co. represented pre-Hispanic Mexico, addressing the four directions in solemn ritual with fourteen dancers and two drummers. The dances were simple forward and back steps, simple turns and ritualized circles to sustained drumming.

The traditions of Nueva Leone received depiction by the 24-member Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza. There the culture was shaped by large cattle raising properties held by European immigrants to Mexico resulting in the hybrid blending of native and Caucasian customs.

Completing the first half of the program the Oakland Ballet danced Luna Mexicana for the second year with Jazmine Quezada in the title role of the girl decorating the Dias de los Muertos altar, giving rise to Samantha Bell and Landes Dixon’s skeletal wedding duet, a Deer Solo with Franklin Lee Peterson III, a lively quintet and a hat dance popularly connected to the Mexican tradition [I felt deprived in grammar school because I wasn’t chosen to dance it at a school portrayal of a fiesta. My hair was brown and the teacher wanted two blondes for the two Chicano boys.]

Following intermission Ballet Folklorico and Oakland Ballet collaborated in Viva La Vida, celebrating the life, agonies and triumphs of Frida Khalo, depicted in eleven scenes with lighting design by Maxx Kurzunski, costumes credited to Christopher Dunn and Claudia Gonzales and the effective props by Stephanier Dittbern. These props included a bed with connected elevated posts through which Kahlo’s body/spirit was lifted or lowered most effectively at crucial moments. The sections themselves were titled Flor de Pina, The Final Exhibition: Mexico City, 1954, Back in Time – A Family Scene, Diabiltos, and Portrait of a Marriage. The choreographic responsibilities were shared, Graham Lustig responsible for six scenes, Martin Romero for five, mostly employing the music from the state of Oaxaca. Lustig relied on popular tunes like Besame Mucho, Mexican Waltz and a text from Walt Whitman. This first viewing impressed me as a remarkably felicitous and effective sharing in a effective tribute to the amazing life and career of this singular Mexican woman artist.

Nina Pearlman danced the title role, Frida as a young girl and the woman married to Diego Rivera while Jazmine Quezada depicted Frida as an adolescent and later connecting with the spirit animals. Roberto Angulano appeared as Rivera and Samantha Bell, Sharon Kuling and Constanza Murphy as Rivera’s amoratas.

The program itself included a biographical sketch of Frida Kahlo and a brief account of the Day of the Dead tradition in Mexico.