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San Francisco Ballet - 'The Nutcracker'

Tomasson's workshop of life

by Toba Singer

December 21, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Helgi Tomasson's new "Nutcracker" is a handcrafted heirloom. Rooted in the Willam Christensen version, Tomasson's concept, staging, and choreography carve a niche out of early 20th Century San Francisco's Victorian/Edwardian architecture, "Painted Ladies," shipyards, merchant marines, urban Goldrushers, and trolley cars down Market Street. Here is the city that was just a bay away from the Pacific, with all the riches and resources that would travel back and forth across it, home to the very first civic ballet company in the United States. Tomasson's is the first serious version of the world's most-seen ballet offering a discernible plot, unfurled in a richly embroidered tapestry of elegant tableaux. It rejects as a platform, any sentimental views of children, the extended family, or bachelor uncles, in favor of an historically conceived work, that is coherent and fascinating. It brings to mind what the Cubans have referred to as "Workshops in Life," where children enjoy what they see, but don't leave empty-headed, because there's a lesson or two to reflect upon.

Over the past several weeks, we have heard news reports about growing resentment against Jews (and others, of course!), for having ripped the Christ out of Christmas. How interesting that the audience entering the Opera House theater sees a screened greeting card that states simply, "Compliments of the Season," capturing the restraint with which Christmas and its collateral holidays were once celebrated!

A slide show of uncredited San Francisco black and white period photographs opens the performance. A colorized photo of a row of shops appears. As the camera zooms in, we see that the red wood-framed shop bears a sign that reads, "Russell Meyer." As the curtain opens, this dissolves into the stage set, a redwood framed toyshop, tended by the famed "Drosselmeyer" (Jorge Esquivel), who busily shows his toys to one last customer and her daughter as he hurries to close so that he may take a special gift to a special young lady while it is still Christmas Eve. This is a simpler, more readable introduction to the plot--especially for children. It is disappointing, however, to see the stunning Esquivel torso cut off at the waist by the toyshop counter. The view improves as we move into the scene in front of the Stahlbaum Victorian. We meet all the Christmas Eve street characters: a lady selling mistletoe (hiding it when nuns pass by), two lads carrying a pine tree, and then Drosselmeyer feigning interest in a baby in a pram wheeled by a nanny, a transparent ruse to finesse making the latter's acquaintance.

The Stahlbaum parlor, with its bay window looking out on other domed houses nearby, could be in North Beach. A fire flickers in the stage-left hearth, and the female partygoers are dressed in '20s-era chemises with men in suits. While I like the clean look of this scene, I question the choice of pastel colors for winter wear. The color scheme is the reverse of the previous version, where the set was mostly pink and white, and the costumes of richer hues. I like the chemises, but would prefer warmer colors, saving the peach and the canary for the décor. Tomasson has mercifully eliminated mob rule in the ensemble pieces (thereby raising the artistry of the "mice and soldier" combat several notches). Some of the gaiety has gone out of the party scene. The children's dance needs to be a little bigger and more spirited. The Fritz-Clara toy fight cooks up too quickly, yet mildly, to believably boil over into the Nutcracker incurring an injury. If you don't know it's coming, you could easily miss it. Lauren Foos is less spunky than many Claras I've seen (including in the City Ballet School's marvelous production earlier this month).

If the party scene starts on a colorless note, Rory Hohenstein's entrance changes all that. He boings out onto the stage like Jack in the Box, costumed as Harlequin, and as flexible and extendable as Gumby. By the time he finishes his divertissement with a jump split to the floor, I have made up my mind that he's definitely my idea of the perfect bachelor uncle--an uncle you can dance with! Nicole Grand's Dancing Doll is expertly rendered--glittering and twittering from the inside out. Martyn Garside's life size Nutcracker is the one I want for Christmas! The mask and headpiece by Rodney Gordon, is Sendak-esque, as if he's been marched out of Where the Wild Things Are. It's a nice touch that Drosselmeyer returns to the story regularly, playing more of a curator role, especially when he stewards Clara through her dream.

There is a new chemistry in the dream sequence that starts with dry ice floating up around the Christmas tree. Then there's Drosselmeyer's prestidigitation that turns the stage into something of a Ouija Board. He repositions the divan with the sleeping Clara via remote control port de bras, and ushers in an entirely new set, where the Christmas tree and its surroundings--the gifts, the credenza and the fireplace all grow to a giant size, making it possible to downsize Clara, so that she may inhabit the world her dream creates. We see that he sees that Clara is a young lady in need of a dream to grow on and making it happen is Drosselmeyer's real gift to her. This begets a different, and more realistic tension that is supported by mice who logically emerge from where mice often come, the helter-skelter pile of Christmas presents, and the King of Mice (Kirill Zaretskiy), who bumbles up from a special niche -- the orchestra pit, clad in his general's tunic and cap. He is more portly than the others, perhaps because he has benefited from an insider tip that the musicians have a stronger union than the dancers! Our Nutcracker has grown from a fireplace ornament to a strapping sentry.

In this "Nutcracker" theater of operations, soldiers and mice can engage in combat better informed by military science than chaos. I used to chaperone the soldiers and mice backstage--and should therefore now be eligible for post-traumatic stress syndrome benefits. To my trained eye, it appears that the soldiers are using hobbyhorses from the previous version, but the mice now have rattier costumes, with squiggly tails that might seem irresistible to the random four-year-old who chances to happen upon a mouse in the lobby. The Weapons of Mouse Destruction turn out to be, of all things, A Better Mouse Trap--or at least a bigger one! I loved the Val Caniparoli's Dying Mouse of yore, but this Mouse King's Slow Death on the Killing Floor offers much to admire, especially when his twitching corpse tumbles back into the orchestra pit--the gutter whence he came!

Alone with Clara, the triumphant Nutcracker is unmasked at last, and he turns out to be -- Sergio Torrado, Caballero of Distinction! He's hella handsome (in Bay Area parlance), and his facility has improved by leaps and bounds, though turns tend to be cheated on just a tiny bit in their preparations. [I know, I know--everybody else does it!] Lauren Foos now looks very pleased to be dancing Clara, and Torrado's partnering renders their work into a reasonably dreamy pas de deux.

"Snow" opens with the white-costumed Snow King (Pierre-François Vilanoba) and Queen (Muriel Maffre)--dashing downstage, like a just-married couple, out of a lit square in the black backdrop. It's an entrance that takes your breath away. Maffre's developpés are like stalagmites rising out of a snow cave, urged upward with silken port de bras. The Snowflakes' costumes are frosty confections of white tulle tutus, accented by crystal blue bodices and matching "ice" caps. As the music accelerates, the snow drives down harder. Maffre pas de chats onto the stage at the top of the crescendo into a blizzard of fouettés, giving the term "Cool Whip" a whole new meaning. Vilanoba ménèges his way around the whirling Snowflakes. They all weather the storm-- and they've got our love to keep them warm!

The snow mobile of yesteryear has been retired in favor of a cart with four white ponies, who glisten when they shake their manes, which is whenever deliveries of dancers are made.

After the intermission, we find ourselves in something that looks like the Arboretum, or possibly the Legion of Honor, or Palace of Fine Arts. (There were no press kits left, and no annotations in the program). Whatever it is, it looks spectacular, with fabric panels supported by wire armatures hung from above like opaque glass greenhouse windows. Underneath, we see the younger ballet students costumed as butterflies and insects (ladybugs rather than humbugs). The butterfly costumes look very much like the Butterfly costume from previous productions, with kiwi green and peachy flounces. The bugs are black and red, and the whole concept is so ecologically cute that it could melt the Snow Scene frost right out of your imagination, most especially when lacy black butterfly wings descend from above.

The kids are doing every ballet nine-year-old's favorite step--grand jeté. What delicious license to dance that step over and over, when you're still just a kid and not yet the principal dancer you dream of becoming! And they look just fantastic doing them! Tina LeBlanc, the Sugar Plum Fairy du soir, enters in a lavender pink costume, and proceeds to rule the stage. Enter the ponies with their cart, carrying Clara in her lovely mint green nightgown (lovely until it is side by side with the Cavalier's slate-blue tunic, and it turns out that they clash).

This reviewer usually ducks for cover when the child cavalier reenacts the dream sequence. Most boy students haven't yet acquired the theatrical pacing to be able to rush through the mime in a way that makes what they're doing -- or why -- comprehensible to the audience. It usually looks like the ballet master has put a gun to their heads and said, "Cram all these gestures and steps into this tiny allotment of time!" On the other hand, when an adult performs it, the gestures assume some depth and the audience is better able to capture what is meant. The good news is that Sergio Torrado gives us more of his heavenly elevation; the bad news is that he's cheating on his double tour takeoffs, and it remains distracting. Student butterflies (and bugs) drop off the stage, as their adult counterparts flutter in to give us "Waltz of the Flowers" from the butterflies who love them.

The Spanish variation costumes are sleek -- black toreador pants and jackets studded with rhinestones for the men, and black and white flamenco dresses for the women. Nicole Grand and Dores Andre are both hot, and right on time! Arabian is restaged so that the female dancer (Erin McNulty) doesn't emerge from the floor below. Instead, two men (Quinn Wharton and Kirill Zaretskiy) carry her onstage hidden in an enormous gold Aladdin's Lamp, which is rubbed rather suggestively, in order to coax her into view. The choreography here is more deliberate than in other versions, with the two men and one woman giving us cambre back in unison, so that we really see the dancers' elongated bodies. The men's en dehors turns from à la seconde need some work, but the variation is beguiling and quite respectful of the nuances in the music.

The Chinese divertissement features a male dancer (Garrett Anderson) in bright yellow, and a gaggle of students in wonderful vermillion costumes doing choreography derivative of the Lunar New Year Dragon Dance. It's a welcome change from earlier stereotypical steps that dancers dread being cast to perform.

Mirletons/Marzipan has been supplanted by a ribbon candy dance called "French." The dancers, Dalene Bramer, Francis Chung, and Maryellen Olson, manage the least-attractive-of-all choreography just fine. Forced-arch pliés en pointe are great for strengthening the thighs in class, but should never, ever, be shown onstage! The ribbon handling is a little awkward on this first time out. You breathe a sigh of relief when they finish in a jump split to the floor, happy for them that it ends with everything coming together on the same triumphal note.

The Trepak Russians break out of Fabergé eggs on the furious upbeat that marks their entrance. What a great idea! All three are divine (Hansuke Yamamoto, Daniel Deivison and Garen Scribner), but Yamamoto is off the hook in his facility, elevation and articulation.

The Madame du Cirque (Louis Schilling), who replaces Mother Ginger, is a curious creature. With her face painted like a dancehall queen, and her red, white and blue bunting-like costume, she brings to mind those Gay Nineties illustrations that show a similarly painted lady, draped in the flag. In those renderings, Madame is smoking a cigar, skirts indecorously hiked above her open legs, as she leers out at the camera, the clear implication being that the woman of ill repute is a metaphor for the United States government. I couldn't help wondering whether it occurred to Artistic Director Tomasson that Madame du Cirque could be taken as a dead-ringer for the "other" madam. In any case, her skirts host the bear who usually cavorts during the party scene. The children, who usually skip gaily out from under those skirts, do so in from the wings instead, and are not costumed in gingham, but fake cow skins, looking like mini Gateway computer calves. Are they, dare I ask, intended to be those happier California cows? Is the bear no longer Russian, but the California State Grizzly? An entire Fourth Grade Social Studies curriculum has been packed into this one variation, and yet, it's tons of fun! I'm tripping!--and wondering--What became of those cute angel costumes? And--Have Bill Gates and the Dairy Board spooned over substantial liquid assets for this new version--"Nutcracker 8.1"?

Tina LeBlanc's Sugar Plum Fairy dazzles, and then Lauren Foos dissolves into Sarah Van Patten, who, partnered by Torrado, gives us the Grand Pas de Deux. Van Patten works sturdily and handsomely on a technical plane, but could borrow a cup of Snow from Maffre, and a sprinkle or two of Dazzle from LeBlanc, to lighten and brighten her work.

All of you Scrooges who claim to have seen a thousand Nutcrackers and have assumed that this one will be just another Ho-Humbug clone (and you KNOW who you are) -- nuts to you! This is a sleighride of a show that jingles all the way, and may just end up busting all the nightmarish ghosts of Christmas Past. So, Dash-away, dash-away, dash-away, One and All--directly to the War Memorial Opera House and SEE IT!


Edited by Jeff.

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