“Nutcracker,” San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera House, December 11—29, 2002
Does your inner life play host to a war between urbanity and vulnerability at this time of year? If so, this season’s San Francisco Ballet Company production of “Nutcracker” could resolve your dilemma. Rather than harden like marzipan, you might melt like snow. Here are some of the reasons why:
As the Dancing Doll, lovely Clara Blanco “gets” her coaching. She bumps through her variation like your favorite childhood treasure without knees. Like lights rigged in series, her arms crank up—and then down. She is keyed by Drosselmeyer (Jim Sohm) to bend forward, and so stops on the perpendicular with a little residual flip-flop, as her head inclines upward. Watch her for an extra second and you see that the same momentum causes her to blink—just once, and then she’s wide-eyed again.
Never before a memorable role, Clara, danced by the delicately winsome, yet strong and lively Mona Meng, won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Her genuine smile stops just short of an irrepressible grin. It fully reflects the delight this holiday confection is intended to confer. When Fritz breaks her Nutcracker, she doesn’t pretend to cry. Instead, she takes a moment to absorb the pure horror of her loss, à la Valley girl, minus the affectation. The vanished smile tells us all we need to know about this tragic moment.
“Mice” is the only low point of the December 14th program. For some reason, ramming all of San Francisco Ballet School’s Level Six and Level Seven onto the stage is viewed as a good thing. I don’t know why. Their parents and friends can’t see their faces. All the soldiers do is march; all the horses do is gallop; and all the blinded mice do is run into each other and almost pass out under their costumes. There is nothing combative-looking about this scene, and the burst of canon-ball fire offers little more than pathetic underscoring of that irony. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the United States’ government’s impending war against Iraq…a political statement. Luckily, Val Caniparoli’s Mouse King has some amusing choreography at the end that saves the final moments, and leaves ‘em laughing (the audience and probably most of the cast).
On the other hand, the Snow scene was pristinely quiet and spiritual. As Queen and King of Snow, Katita Waldo and Stephen Legate are impeccably matched. From their first upstage corner cambre back to their exit, we see exquisite, respectful, and egalitarian partnering. Waldo gives us arms that could be White Birch limbs dusted with snow, with glittering pirouettes and attitudes. Legate offers his admiring ministrations with a great affection, seemingly borne of years of shared moments like these. It is an exemplar for every student. The snowflake women’s corps gave us a splendidly musical performance.
The Land of the Sweets offered a mixed sampler. The set needs some re-thinking, and perhaps in the new Nutcracker that has been forecast for a number of years now, that will be done. The colors have faded, and the installation of various pillars of sweets seems to rob the stage of needed space. Spanish Chocolate was danced well. We are given to expect so much from the entrance, costumes and music, but the choreography is so simple that we can feel a bit let down. Moises Martín was put in at the last minute for Damian Smith. While danced with his usual mastery, Martín’s Arabian Coffee with Sherri Le Blanc seemed a little one-dimensional. This role requires considerable character acting if it is to succeed, and that wasn’t present in this instance.
Pascal Molat was splendid as the lead in Chinese Tea, with split jumps that bisected the stratosphere. Elana Altman, Kathleen Martuza, Sara Van Patten and Leslie Young danced the Mirlitons/Dresden Dolls raptly. Russian Cossacks took the audience by storm. Hansuke Yamamoto was put in for Gonzalo Garcia as lead Cossack. In the SFB version, they enter with gigantic battue leaps before the music, and then give us a great show. There was a moment when Jonathan Mangosing seemed to miss a step and then get flustered, and come in late on the series of turns that he initiates, but he got it together for the remainder of the divertissement and the men, including Pablo Piantino, made for a great trio.
The chorus of Flowers appeared as a glistening chrysalis for Kristin Long’s delightful butterfly. The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier were danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Vadim Solomakha. The subtleties of Tan’s dancing have become more visible with her maturation. When she takes her á la seconde extension, she’ll just give the tiniest glance at that foot aligned with her ear--as if a dewdrop just lighted on it. It is nothing if not fetching, as of course, are her delicately regal inflations at the peak of each crescendo in the pas de deux. That’s why it was a little maddening (for the audience and I’m thinking for her as well) when the orchestra slowed to a dirge tempo when it came time for her pirouettes at the end. She stayed dutifully on the music, but it was the kind of moment you have when you suspect you’ve got a flat tire, but aren’t sure. If you dance as perfectly as Tan does, the audience will see when you step a bit too far over into a lift from a turn. With other dancers, we might not even notice. Solomakha was gallant and generous as Cavalier, his mega-elevation and extensions going great guns. “Feet, feet, feet,” we hear our inner voice urging. He has such beautiful ones, and should roll through and fully point them a bit more consistently.
As Clara sped off to the heavens in her swan mobile, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d see Mona Meng on the stage again someday in a luscious tutu role that would mirror the inspiring examples set by Waldo and Tan this season.
"Live your life as an exclamation, not an explanation!" Eddie Izzard