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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

December 2011 Performances

by Heather Desaulniers

  • Cal Performances presents Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal in "Danzón"
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

    • "Nutcracker" - San Francisco Ballet
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

    • "The Nutcracker" - Berkeley Ballet Theater
    Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, Berkeley

    • “The Nutcracker” - Ballet San Jose
    San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, San Jose

    • “The Nutcracker” - Peninsula Ballet Theatre
    Fox Theatre, Redwood City

    December 3rd - Appearing at Cal Performances for the first time since Pina Bausch's sudden passing in 2009, Tanztheater Wuppertal brought her brilliant and somewhat light-hearted 1995 work "Danzón" to the Berkeley stage. While chronicling the journey that humanity travels in the space between birth and death, Bausch's legacy, drive and creativity lives on. She pushed boundaries like no one else and had an unmatched ability to juxtapose text, dance and design all in service of her chosen narrative. As we soon bid a bittersweet farewell to one of the foremost modern dance companies, it is wonderful that Tanztheater Wuppertal continues to share the magic of Bausch dance-theater.

    The various stages of life were beautifully represented through Bausch's blend of drama, humor and absurdity. The opening images gave us birth as a grown man (dressed as a baby in an oversized diaper) crawls across the stage. First love unfolded in the seesaw scene, and the women used oranges to learn how to kiss. An abundance of journey/travel symbols were used as props (bags and suitcases) and when one part of the set briefly and purposely burst into flames, Bausch was commenting on unexpected challenges. The final moments brought us to the end of life with a lengthy grave scene.

    The choreography closely followed the central theme by employing movements that were about motion and going somewhere. The first duet danced by two women in white introduced a swimming motif, which recurred several times throughout the two-hour piece. Bausch was also able to incorporate the notion that in life, we sometimes make decisions of our own accord and sometimes are aided by others. The pas de trois mid-way through "Danzón" showed a woman being tenderly lifted and assisted as she made her way through the space. And, the final leg of the trip gave a stunning visual as to how we can approach death. Here, one female dancer gently stepped onto the foot of her male partner, and then, he turned her ever so slightly into a lovely attitude derrière. They repeated this short sequence from upstage right to downstage left and you could feel the calm and support as she reached her final destination.

    Danzón" definitely feels lighter than many Bausch works, at least in terms of the often present violence and brutality. Having said that, there were some obvious Bausch-isms that sang from Zellerbach Halls' stage during the performance. Many Bausch ballets examine the relationship between men and women from an extremely dark perspective, specifically men's aggression toward women and women's humiliation of men. Though dialed down quite a bit for "Danzón", both were present. As a woman lay facedown on a massage table, her experience quickly moved from relaxing to forceful, as several men pulled and manipulated her body while she maintained a completely passive position. In another scene, the women sat still in chairs, smiling menacingly, as the men crawled around the stage and laid their heads on the women's knees, clearly seeking approval and affection. In addition, "Danzón" contained Pina's trademark absurdist moments; the funniest one being a tent scene where the cast was assembled listening to stories and jokes, almost like a camping trip. Then, all of a sudden, the peace and tranquility was interrupted by a disco/belly dancing performance complete with a soap box and a rubber snake.

    From a structural perspective, "Danzón" is my favorite Bausch composition (at least from what I have seen thus far). Diverse scenework (events expressed through text and mime) was infused with varying dance vignettes (Cuban, ballet, character, partnering, lyrical and contemporary). Many of these dance portions happened in isolation, and though separate, were still able to extrapolate the narrative and move the story forward. The result of these 'separate' dance sequences was a marked clarity of purpose. Much dance theater throws everything on the stage at once, producing a saturated and chaotic frenzy. "Danzón" still had its share of bedlam but with this structural specificity, the audience was able to experience the choreography itself and really see the advanced technical level of the dancers. They were out there on their own, vulnerably sharing each and every movement, revealing the narrative through their physical abandon.

    My Overture to 2011 Nutcracker Season:
    As each "Nutcracker" season approaches, dance writers and critics are faced with making their interpretation of the Christmas classic new yet again. It is no easy task to make something so familiar seem fresh year after year. And, with most critics seeing a number of "Nutcrackers" each December, new ideas become even more challenging. So this year, I decided to focus my attention on one single (and perhaps my favorite) vignette: the snow scene. The reviews below will discuss how each production treats this winter wonderland.

    December 9th - If you long for a December filled with freezing precipitation, Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker" can fill that void with gorgeous costuming, inspired choreography and an abundance of glistening snow. Act I's final scene is a brilliant physical expression of a winter dreamworld.

    Tomasson's snow scene begins with delicate choreography; an accurate interpretation of a quiet, tranquil, light snowfall. The snowflake dancers move through their intricate formations with waltz steps, emboîté turns and piqués onto pointe - smooth, gentle phrases that cover the stage like a warm blanket. As the intensity and tempo of the snowfall increases, a relevé sequence is added marking the staccato nature of the more dramatic winter weather. The King and Queen of the Snow preside over this entire journey with a defined regality, performing noble lifts and majestic turns. On opening night, these roles were danced by the elegant duo of Davit Karapetyan and Vanessa Zahorian. These two principals perform as a solid unit, giving consummate artistic and technical attention to every step from the overhead lifts to the low attitude turns.

    In my review of last year's production, I noted that the women's corps de ballet was having some difficulty gelling as a group. It was wonderful to see that just twelve months later, a comprehensive team has emerged - the corps should be very pleased with the strides they have made over the past year. This newfound collective strength is definitely positive, though at the same time, it did emphasize that one snowflake was having a rough performance on opening night. She was having difficulty maintaining the squareness in her hips and shoulders and her chaîné turns were very wobbly.

    December 10th - "The Nutcracker" at Berkeley Ballet Theater is a charming interpretation of the Christmas classic, complete with a few very appropriate Berkeley-esque adjustments. Choreographed by Sally Streets and Robert Nichols, the annual production showcases the talent and dedication of this school's teachers, students and parents.

    In the finale of Act I, the Snow Queen (Katie Wilson) and King (Damon Mahoney) ruled over their wintry kingdom with stunning poise while the six snowflakes filled the stage with a tranquil flutter. Streets and Nichols' choreography is based in a circular thematic in order to reflect snow's shape and texture. The port de bras followed several unique patterns that spoke to this conceptual imagery: both arms circled in front of the body from bras bas up to a high 5th position; and the Snow Queen made a similar pathway from 1st position to 3rd arabesque. Petit allegro sequences (lots of temps leveé) were also favored, imitating a light, airy snowfall. While the choreography and staging were beautifully done, I think the more noteworthy accomplishment is the artistic and technical education that students are receiving at Berkeley Ballet Theater. These dancers are being taught solid technique - obvious throughout the entire show, but specifically present with the snowflakes. There is clear emphasis being placed on keeping square and understanding how your legs, arms and core must work together to create the complexity that is classical ballet.

    December 17th - Artistic Director Bruce Steivel has created a delightful “Nutcracker” for one of the South Bay's professional companies, Peninsula Ballet Theatre. In its second year of production, Steivel's version of the Christmas ballet keeps to the traditional story yet offers some very appropriate narrative additions. For example, the first scene's party guests are dignitaries representing the nations that will re-appear in Act II's 'Land of the Sweets'. This offers an important and new-found continuity to the “Nutcracker” story. And, when it came to Act I, Scene three's 'Kingdom of Snow', Steivel's intricate choreography came alive with dynamic range and technical skill.

    A gorgeous lift opened the snow scene as the Snow Queen (Chelsea Hix) made her majestic entrance. Supported by her Snow King (Nathan Cottam), Hix floated through the air completely upright, in a breathtaking standing lift. The snowflakes had equally impressive moments, especially their first canon sequence. As each group began Steivel's delicate choreography, an actual snowfall emerged onstage. Staggering the corps' movement allowed for a real-time experience of winter weather - light and calm one moment; heavy and chaotic in the next. With the snow music being in ¾ time, it obviously lends itself to waltz combinations but, envisioning unique and creative choreography for this well-known score can be challenging. In addition to the typical balancé and piqué vocabulary, Steivel was able to inject some steps that fit well with the waltz tempo yet are less frequently used in this vignette – the ballonés were my personal favorite.

    As the principal snow scene dancers, Hix and Cottam shone in their lifts, their solo work and the majority of their pas de deux. Their side by side grand jetés were fantastic – expertly matching each other's height, extension and landing. Where they struggled was in some of the supported turns and promenades. Though the exact issue was unclear, I imagine that it was due to a combination of balance and timing on both of their parts. Hix fell off of pointe during several of these partnered turns and balances (though she covered well) which indicated something was clearly off during their duet.

    December 17th - Ballet San Jose's “The Nutcracker” affords the Bay Area yet another opportunity to experience the traditional Christmas tale. Choreographed by Artistic Director Dennis Nahat on the former Cleveland Ballet in 1979, this production centers around the main character of Maria Tannenbaum and her beloved Nutcracker Prince. While much of Act One is familiar to any “Nutcracker” fan, Act Two is quite a diversion from the typical “Nutcracker” story. Instead of arriving in the 'Land of the Sweets', Maria and the Prince travel through three different lands. In each locale, they are greeted with the dance of that nation and are invited to participate. Lastly, they arrive at their final destination of Muscovy and it is here where the Prince is joyfully reunited with his parents, Tsarina Tatiana and Tsar Nikolai (danced by Karen Gabay and Rudy Candia at this performance) and is able to introduce them to Maria.

    Act I, Scene IV, aptly named 'A Wondrous Snowstorm', highlights Nahat's unique ability to marry classic and contemporary sensibilities. The technique and physical syntax definitely fall into the classical camp. The snowflakes run into the space like ethereal fairies, carrying handfuls of snow that they dispel into the air. Beautiful port de bras fills the entire group dance that follows. The hands and arms move above the head, gently brushing the sky in combination with airy pas de basques; chaîné turns fall into waltz steps and balancés while the arms alternate between bras bas and 5th position. Constant motion was the name of the game; even in the few moments where the snowflakes posed in a particular position, there was no stopping. You could see them growing and extending every second they were on stage – constant and impenetrable flow and grace. Some classical patterning also deserves special mention. Near the end of the scene, a gorgeous musical glissando is represented by sequenced floorwork that increased in tempo and intensity as dictated by the score. And, the winter wonderland concluded with the snowflakes boureéing in a zipper formation, engulfing Maria and the Prince in their embrace before sending them off on the next leg of their adventure.

    It was in the narrative that Nahat employed a more contemporary interpretation of the snow scene (and for me his choices make a lot of sense). He elects not to feature a Snow King or Queen and instead have Maria and the Prince dance the entire pas de deux together. This choice allows a stronger participatory element to their story – they are really involved in the transition from the party through the snowy forest and into the next dimension. By having them dance these 'lead roles', Maria and the Prince are not only present but also active in every part of their journey.

    When I attend any ballet, my focus is obviously on the dancing and choreography. I tend to not comment too much about design or costumes but every once in a while, one of these elements is so overwhelming that it must be mentioned. I felt transported by the stunning snow scenery in Ballet San Jose's “The Nutcracker”. David Guthrie has envisioned a set that creates a wintry forest possessing emotion, beauty and depth. Bravo!

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