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Ballet San Jose

'Nutcracker' - Interview and Review

by Heather Desaulniers

December 8, 2012 -- San Jose Performing Arts Center, San Jose, CA

Ballet San Jose has had an incredible year of change and transition. And through all the drama, rumors and media scrutiny, the company has remained true and committed to its vision: bringing professional quality ballet to the Bay Area. This December, they are proud to premiere a new “Nutcracker”, choreography by Karen Gabay. Recently, I had the pleasure to chat with Ms. Gabay about her new endeavor and two weeks later, I attended the opening evening performance.

Criticaldance: You have been with the Ballet San Jose organization for thirty-three years now (including in its previous iteration as San Jose Cleveland Ballet) and are currently a Principal Dancer. How did you come to be choreographing this new “Nutcracker”?
Karen Gabay: I have created shorter ballets before for both Ballet San Jose and for my summer company, Pointe of Departure. So, I have experience with choreography and directing. This past summer, I was approached with this amazing and exciting opportunity – to choreograph and oversee this year’s “Nutcracker” for BSJ.

CD: As you noted, the role of choreographer is not new to you, though I understand that this is your first run at a full-length ballet. How are you feeling about this challenge? How is it different than a shorter work?
KG: It was a bit intimidating and daunting at first. Building an entire ballet can be difficult in making sure that the story is threaded throughout the entire piece which is certainly not an easy task. It is a huge undertaking replacing Dennis Nahat’s production that had been seen in San Jose since 1985. Our audience is very familiar with that production and it has been a part of their annual holiday tradition. Luckily, the “Nutcracker” has both a wonderful story and beautiful music. Music has always been the biggest inspiration for me when choreographing. I feel confident that the result will live up to the excellence that is Ballet San Jose and become an exciting part of the holiday season.

CD: The “Nutcracker” has many iterations and Nahat’s interpretation is certainly very different. Which version/storyline does your “Nutcracker” follow?
KG: With Ballet San Jose and American Ballet Theatre now engaged in an artistic partnership, our “Nutcracker” will also reflect that bi-coastal association. My vision, concept and choreography for the ballet is based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story and we will be using the costumes and sets from a production that was originally conceived by ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s “Nutcracker”. McKenzie’s version was set on a bigger company and built for a bigger theater, which does present some obvious logistic challenges. For example, in previous productions of McKenzie’s “Nutcracker”, the cast included just fourteen children. At Ballet San Jose, more of the school’s students are involved. Each production has approximately forty children in each performance. This casting difference meant creating new roles for children and building new costumes.

CD: How did you start the project? And where do things stand at this point in the rehearsal process?
KG: Our rehearsal period started in September, and I had the company for three weeks. What made the most sense was to begin with the bigger sections (Dance of the Snowflakes, Waltz of the Flowers) along with the solo divertissements. I’ve been rehearsing with the children separately on Saturdays since November. So, thus far, there has been some compartmentalization with the entire cast. But next week, both groups – the company and the children – are going to start rehearsing in the same space at the same time. This is going to be very exciting, yet, will also require some finesse.

CD: Can you speak to some of the unique, different and/or new elements that audiences will see in this year’s “Nutcracker”?
KG: In addition to the expanded kids’ roles, Act I has a few surprises. The traditional Christmas Eve family celebration holds true but I would not describe this Party Scene as typical. When the curtain rises, the audience will join the party in full swing, rather than witnessing a parade of arrivals. The only character who gets a particular entrance is Drosselmeier. There is also special attention paid to the Nutcracker-Prince connection and during the ‘entertainment’ portion of the festivities, we see E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of “The Hard Nut” being referenced.

CD: With so many interpretations of this classical ballet out there, why should audiences pick San Jose for their holiday tradition this year?
KG: Ballet San Jose’s 2012 “Nutcracker” is a completely fresh production to the area, so this is definitely the year to check it out and make it a part of their holiday entertainment.

Review of Ballet San Jose’s “Nutcracker”
December 8th, 2012

With its brand new “Nutcracker”, Ballet San Jose continues to inject life, vision and vitality into the South Bay’s performing arts scene. Choreographed by BSJ’s own Karen Gabay, this full-length holiday extravaganza is a thoughtful and fresh interpretation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, complete with elegant dancing and striking originality.

Following the orchestral prelude, the audience is welcomed to a Christmas Eve celebration. Dr. & Mrs. Stahlbaum, Fritz and Marie are enjoying the festivities with their friends and anticipating the arrival of Drosselmeier. In Gabay’s version, the child Marie is danced by an adult, Maria Jacobs-Yu at this performance. Though present in many “Nutcrackers”, this age discrepancy can come across as strange, melodramatic and badly overacted. Not here. Jacobs-Yu was, in fact, one of the best Maries I have ever seen, making a complete theatrical transformation. Her buoyant movements expressed and created a true, youthful joy - the ballon in her Act I battement jetés providing a particularly fantastic example. And, the childlike wonder and amazement that she conveyed when the Nutcracker became the Prince late in Act I was both palpable and incredibly genuine.

Party scenes frequently contain an ‘entertainment’ portion for the onstage guests, usually facilitated by the mysterious Drosselmeier. Often a type of magic show, Gabay’s “Nutcracker” opted instead to stage ‘The Hard Nut’ story for the party guests and the audience. ‘The Hard Nut’ makes up the middle third of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Nutcracker” book, yet is often left out of the ballet entirely. It was delightful to see this narrative brought to life and put back into the ballet where it helps to explain the link between the Nutcracker and the Prince. Particular attention must be paid to the two suitors in this scene (Akira Takahashi and Peter Hershey) for their amazing precision and unison work. The choreography for this duo (and for many others throughout the ballet as well) also revealed Gabay’s clear talent for incorporating ample batterie in both men’s and women’s variations.

As we moved beyond the party into the snow and forest scenes, there were some noted cast omissions: no snow queen, no snow king and no sugar plum fairy. Though surprising at first, Gabay’s choices were both smart and narratively sound. Without a snow queen, king or sugar plum fairy, Marie and the Nutcracker Prince (Ramon Moreno) retain the primary focus and remain the stars of the ballet, which is of course, right on point. To that end, Jacobs-Yu and Moreno danced many different pas de deuxs throughout the evening, all of which were absolutely lovely: interesting lifts coupled with an innovative treatment of arabesque at its varying heights. Occasionally, the duets got a little busy, almost like there were too many steps for not quite enough music. But the majority of their dancing was a joy to watch and the choreography highlighted their individual strengths: Moreno’s powerful jump and Jacobs-Yu’s classic pirouettes (a completely square preparation without any hint of ‘winding up’).

Act II journeyed to ‘A Christmas Forest’ for four inspired divertissements: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian (French was missing for some unknown reason). I am a sucker for any dancemaker who utilizes the full petit allegro oeuvre, including such unsung heroes as temps de cuisse and entrechat trois. Along with the presence of second position in choreography (certainly an ode to Balanchine), Gabay has turned these traditional vignettes into her own combination of accuracy and newness. Next came the Waltz of the Flowers, which in Ballet San Jose’s “Nutcracker” is a dance for eight women and eight men. With so much flow and physicality, this partnered group sequence oozes elegance. And because of the numerous lifts, the ‘down, up, up’ pulse of the ¾ time signature was given much more of an emphasis, leading to an important, and albeit too rare, interdependence between the music and the movement. The Nutcracker Prince and Marie danced the leads in the Waltz, again propelling them to where they were meant to be: at the center of the ballet.

Accompaniment by Symphony Silicon Valley was the icing on the cake. Under the direction of conductor George Daugherty, the music was dynamic, articulate and interactive, exactly what is required of and demanded by a Tchaikovsky score. Daugherty and the musicians of Symphony Silicon Valley were adept in creating a conversation between the instruments, allowing for a more complete understanding of the subjects, themes, answers and counterpointe present in the entire “Nutcracker” composition.

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