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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

Review of December & Preview of January

by Heather Desaulniers

  • December 2010

    * “The Velveteen Rabbit” – ODC
    December 3, 2010 – Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

    * “Nutcracker” – San Francisco Ballet
    December 15, 2010 – War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

    * “Nutcracker at Zeum” – Mark Foehringer Dance Project | SF
    December 18, 2010 – San Francisco Children’s Museum, San Francisco, CA

    * “A Christmas Carol” – American Conservatory Theater
    December 18, 2010 – San Francisco, CA

    "The Nutcracker" is an institution in the Bay Area. With so many fantastic local versions to choose from, any "Nutcracker" fan can attend Christmas Eve at The Stahlbaums several times during the holidays. But if "Nutcracker" isn't your cup of tea, there are other festive San Francisco dance offerings to take it, including ODC's long-running presentation of "The Velveteen Rabbit" and the annual ACT “A Christmas Carol”.

    Charming and delightful, “The Velveteen Rabbit” is a testament to the combination of traditional and contemporary movement vocabulary. Choreographer KT Nelson’s enchanting dance version of Margery Williams' story shone with intricate choreographic matching - double attitude piqué turns flowing into sprightly sautés. Flexed feet and parallel developpés coupled with assemblés and grand jetés, and as with any good food and wine pairing, the combination of ballet and modern seemed logical, obvious and essential. Like many holiday dance productions, the children from the ODC school play an important part in "The Velveteen Rabbit". These kids were incredible: they were well-rehearsed, had lovely technique and confident stage presence. I would even go so far as to say that their synchronization was better than several "Nutcracker" party scenes.

    American Conservatory Theater's production of “A Christmas Carol” has something for everyone: fascinating dramatic elements for the theater critics; unique vocal selections for the musicians; cool stage effects for the techies and for the dance lovers, clever movement sequences choreographed and contributed by Val Caniparoli, adding significant vitality to this famous holiday story.

    'Christmas past' journeys through the life of a young Scrooge, with one of the visions recalling a holiday soiree with food, drinks and of course, dancing. Caniparoli smartly delivers a joyful, circular partner dance to embody this social event, well-suited to both the tone and the revelers. His folk dance looked to be a regular part of the character's cultural and social make-up (as if they had learned the dance as children), opting for simple footwork with unexpected additions - quick ball-changes with coordinating head tilts. The opening of Act II provided a similar moment of cohesive whimsy with the produce sellers scene. The series of inventive dance duets made this vignette fun and playful as the Spanish onions, Turkish figs and French plums were transformed from 'food' into personalities.

    Most of the actors in “A Christmas Carol” were not trained dancers and so it was imperative that the choreography not be overly complicated. To that end, Caniparoli worked with an economy of movement, giving the performers simple, accessible yet dynamic sequences. This allowed them to remain in character while successfully and confidently performing the set dances. Because Caniparoli possesses a talent to match movement and mood all while keeping the technical capabilities of his cast in mind, it would have been nice if there had been a little more dance present in the play. Fred's party in Act II would have been another wonderful opportunity to highlight Caniparoli's choreography.

    Like so many other Bay Area residents, San Francisco Ballet's “Nutcracker” is a favorite holiday tradition of mine - one that I missed greatly when I was living on the East Coast. So, walking through the familiar doors of the War Memorial Opera House to see Helgi Tomasson's magnificent production was particularly special this year. It was like coming home. If you believe “Nutcracker” is just more December fluff, you just haven't seen a good (or in San Francisco Ballet's case, a great) version yet. Tomasson's interpretation of Clara Stahlbaum's story not only captures the fun, fantasy and festivity of childhood but also communicates the more complex narrative elements, specifically that of guidance. At every point in Clara's journey, there are stabilizing forces for her to rely upon: at the party, it is her parents; during the battle, the Nutcracker Prince becomes her protector; in the forest, the Snow King and Queen steer her in the right direction and upon arriving in the 'Land of Sweets', she meets yet another role model, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Although each of these characters is very different, their interactions with Clara speak to a common denominator. Like any child, she needs those in her life to be helpful, trustworthy and dependable, and they all fulfill that requirement.

    In this particular version (which premiered in 2004), Tomasson made some bold and somewhat risky choices for the Sugar Plum Fairy. In his ballet, she still presides over the 'Land of Sweets' with a combination of strength and softness; regal but not at all overbearing. She facilitates the different character dances and welcomes Clara to bear witness to the wonder and excitement. With that persona, it makes perfect sense for her to lead the Waltz of the Flowers. This is not the case in every “Nutcracker”. Often, a few of the flowers or even a completely different character are designated the soloist(s), but here, Tomasson opted (very appropriately) for the lead dancer in this variation to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. At the end of Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy's role is also very different than most “Nutcrackers”. The variation and grand pas de deux typically danced by the SPF is instead given to grown-up Clara. But, the Sugar Plum Fairy still maintains her facilitating role in these final events. It is she who introduces the transformed Clara to her Cavalier Prince and subsequent invites them to command the stage.

    Mark Foehringer's “Nutcracker”, presented at the Children's Museum in San Francisco, has taken the two-hour holiday extravaganza and compressed it into four scenes: Drosselmeyer's Toyshop, Clara's family Christmas party, Candy Land and a return to the Toyshop. This shorter “Nutcracker” is the perfect introduction for young children – they can experience classical and contemporary ballet, an engaging, linear story, and live musical accompaniment in under an hour.

    One noteworthy nuance is Foehringer's in-depth treatment of Drosselmeyer. Typically, this magical, mystical character makes his first appearance during a brief prologue or during the party scene (depending on the production). Here, we see Drosselmeyer in his toyshop, actually creating the life-size dolls and other Christmas surprises. Danced by compelling performer Brian Fisher, this unique first scene is integral in setting up Drosselmeyer to be the director of the events that follow.

    Foehringer also makes a special effort to demonstrate how the character's stories are intertwined. When Drosselmeyer arrives at the Christmas Eve party, he dances a pas de trois with Clara (Taylor Ullery) and the Nephew (Chad Dawson), who later becomes the Nutcracker Prince - a very active personification of the narrative (Clara loves the Nutcracker Prince, whom Drosselmeyer has created and given to her). When Clara journeys to 'Candy Land', she is greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy filling the ambassador role and orchestrating the citizens of 'Candy Land'. In many versions of “Nutcracker”, Clara and the Prince are not participants, but rather passive observers; they simply sit and watch the different divertissements. Here, 'Candy Land's' guests were incorporated into all the dances. Drosselmeyer partnered the Spanish Chocolate, and everyone was involved in Chinese Tea. As the Sugar Plum Fairy (Lizanne Roman) began her variation, Clara stood behind her, mimicking and imitating her choreography. Then, the Sugar Plum Fairy actually began to demonstrate and pass down her movements to Clara. Foehringer transformed this famous solo into a spatial pas de deux for Clara and the SPF, a perfect metaphor for the Queen and her apprentice. It was also very fitting that her's (the Sugar Plum Fairy) is the last face that Clara sees as 'Candy Land' disappears.

    After a much needed month of feel-good December dance, January promises to be a bit deeper and darker, at least narratively. Company C Contemporary Ballet performs at the Castro Valley Center for the Arts with an evening of new works combined with familiar repertoire, including pieces by Daniel Ezralow and Twyla Tharp. I love Tharp’s choreography - even when her work tends toward comedy, there always seems to be a haunting undertone. ODC Theater presents Kelly Kemp & Company/Number 9 with “7 ways to hide your self from the rest of the world”: a piece that promises to reveal that which we may avoid and hide from. Catherine Galasso performs a dance installation at Meridian Gallery later this month and lastly, San Francisco Ballet offers the tragic story of “Giselle”. The best part of this ballet is seeing someone new in the title role; it is so interesting to witness how the interpretation of this famous character differs from one ballerina to another.

    Happy New Year!

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