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San Francisco Ballet's San Francisco Ballet - 'Nutcracker'

Crying for Eco-Change in a Humdrum Kingdom

by Toba Singer

December 17, 2003 -- War Memorial Auditorium, San Francisco

Fortunately, a new generation of dancers is beginning to emerge at San Francisco Ballet. Unfortunately, it is going to take a while for them to become integrated into the company and to raise their skills to the level of some of the veteran performers. Fortunately (with apologies to Remy Charlip), "Nutcracker," in spite of its humdrum choreography, is an excellent laboratory for getting it right. Added to the awkward conjuncture are the flu and injuries, owing to viruses and fatigue. The result is that a small number of fairly inexperienced dancers dance a lot of performances and get pretty worn out. Also worn out are the scenery and costumes.

I can’t wait for the Stahlbaums to repaint their parlor in anticipation of next year’s new production. I am eager for the Kingdom of the Sweets to undergo the ecological, seismic, and climatalogical shifts required to change the color of that land mass to a color that is not Wilted White, Bored Beige, or Punked-Out Peptic Pink. I will not grieve the loss of those faux stained glass overhead objects that look like they were salvaged from the set of a 1970s sitcom. Either the Flowers costumes are designed to look like Four O’Clocks that we happen to be seeing in their 9 a.m. season, or they have died a slow, painful death over the years, from dehydration and overuse.

It was more than a little shocking to my Boston Ballet-enthusiast companion that there was not a full house. The usual phalanx of standing room devotees had easily found accommodations in the sinking seats in the orchestra (could those be overhauled as well, in honor of the new "Nutcracker"?). Not being required to execute a grand plié in sixth position in order to sit in them might perk up the audience for the occasion.

In spite of the sagging seats, sets, spirits, and costumes, there were some lovely moments in this past Wednesday evening’s performance. Drosselmeyer, performed by Peter Brandenhoff, takes on more and more of the absolutely necessary grandeur that Jorge Esquivel has been able to confer on the character. It is handy to remember that the Drosselmeyer character is very much akin to the Stage Manager in the play "Our Town." Without him, not only do we not have a Nutcracker, we also do not have the stopping of time, Clara’s dream, with all that it brings us in the second act. It saddens me when I see productions in which Drosselmeyer doesn’t show up in the finale, though it probably makes whoever is cast to play him happy to leave early, jump on his motorcycle, and arrive home before the opening grand jeté of Trepak. Drosselmeyer is the steward of the story and should be applauded for the tale he formats.

In the party scene, we are introduced to Rachelle Evans as Clara. It was heartening to see an African-American child in that coveted role. For those who squirm at the mere mention of the words "affirmative action," YES, she was the most qualified girl to dance the role, and NO, she didn’t get to dance it because she’s black, though it’s about time! Mary Ellen Beaudreau was tons of fun to watch as the grandma with a buzz on, and in that vein, I am convinced that Val Caniparoli’s King of the Mice is without equal in the dance world. He is the embodiment of the cowardly, swaggering General-without-an-army. Yuan Yuan Tan as the Snow Queen is supremely supple, gorgeous, and regal in her bearing, dancing the role with total abandon and delight. As she matures, she seems to gain depth and a generosity of spirit that we did not see in her earliest performances. Vadim Solomakha is a gallant Snow King, and remains the gracious and Benevolent Despot throughout.

Margaret Karl is new to the role of Dancing Doll. Her initial mime work was quite good, but she had a little trouble with her posé arabesques. One has to assume when something so basic is not in place, it is because the dancer has the flu or an injury. The Dancing (bear) Partner brought the energy level up, and Ms. Karl was able to match his great élan.

As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Kristin Long was energetic, though a bit off the music at times. She has a back injury, but that was in no way evident. She is a trooper, and covered well for the listlessness of one of the child partners, no doubt hoping to model an energy level that the children need to work harder to achieve. Spanish Chocolate was unspectacular, with the standouts standing out a bit too much -- the work failed to move together in one piece and got a little clunky. Arabian Coffee seemed a little disembodied, and you could see the trap door leaning open against the vessel from which Maryellen Olson emerges. The headdress that Chidozie Nzerem wears destroyed the line of his neck and back. That could hopefully change in next year’s production.

Apprentice Martyn Garside was put in for Jaime Garcia Castilla and displayed great strength informed by delicacy in the Chinese Tea divertissement, showing an enchanting ballon that should be the envy of all the male dancers in the company. Aaron Orza was a splendidly convincing Cossack, giving us a Yul Brynner-style decisiveness in his very present-and-accounted-for rendition. His partners were adequate, though one of them less attentive than the other.

The Mother Ginger kids seemed a little shell-shocked this year. No pink costumes next year, please! Petal pink is not about Christmas! The corps danced Flowers with total dedication to hands and arms -- all of them beautiful and musically brilliant. Leslie Young as Butterfly seemed a bit distracted and balky, as though she didn’t feel at home in the role.

Joan Boada’s partnering of Kristin Long seemed a little remote, though his variations were magnificent, with his usual mega-elevation and killer double tours. Finding fifth when he lands would model that expectation for the students, who of course still have a ways to go to accomplish that, along with pointing their toes.

If I sound a little balky myself, I have to say that it concerns me that the dancers are put through the mill for the sake of packing the patrons in. I’d rather see fewer performances with a greater scale of ticket prices, so that audiences don’t miss out, dancers stay healthier and less injured, rent is kept down, and performances are better. There are other ways to pull in the cash, such as more aggressive boutique sales, or associated events where Nutcrackabilia is sold (as they do in Houston at the downtown Nutcracker Market, a holiday institution in that city). Taking the profits out of the hides of the dancers is not good for anyone: the audience, the dancers, nor the remainder of the season, most of which is ahead of us. In considering the next Nutcracker, let’s trade what has become something of a Mincemeat Pie for something that floats better--like Marzipan!

Edited by Lori Ibay

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