Friday, December 16, 2016

"The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Dancers in
Ben Needham-Wood's White Christmas
Photo: Keith Sutter
The Christmas Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
December 15th, 2016

Social court dance, contemporary and traditional ballet, percussive rhythmical choreography, jazz, musical theater, comedy – together these genres make up 2016’s edition of Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet. With twenty-nine short vignettes split between two acts, this annual revue-style program speaks to range: the possibilities that exist within the performance and movement arts; the depth of talent and creativity within this iconic troupe; and a breadth and scope of choreographic vision, with work by company founder Michael Smuin, Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert, and current dancers Nicole Haskins, Ben Needham-Wood and Rex Wheeler. And in the midst of some particularly stormy weather, The Christmas Ballet brought warmth, fun and festivity to a very full house for the San Francisco opening Thursday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

As is their custom, Smuin started the night with the ‘Classical Christmas’ collection, an elegant, regal and well-curated mix of dance and music. Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Jonathan Powell delighted in Seiwert’s Noel Nouvelet, a sublime duet grounded in classical ballet technique, yet filled with unexpected twists, counter-balanced tilts and a significant use of demi-pointe. As always, Haskins sparkled in Smuin’s Zither Carol, a waltzy solo with balances that go on forever. For Unto Us A Child Is Born, another excerpt by Smuin, impressed with its celebratory nature, huge lifts, fast footwork, broad arabesques and emboîté turns. New company artists Valerie Harmon and Benjamin Warner led this dance with such grace and technique – their opening pas de deux, an absolute inspiration. With an array of contretemps and pas de basques, Wheeler’s We Three Kings (world premiere) has positioned itself to be a mainstay in The Christmas Ballet. This music shares a story of traveling, of a journey, and Wheeler aptly captured that narrative through dance, movement, patterning and stage architecture. And ‘Classical Christmas’ closed with Haskins’ buoyant, jubilant full cast work, Joy To The World.

Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’ is packed with audience favorites: Santa Baby, Christmas Island and guest artist and former Smuin company dancer Shannon Hurlburt in the Celtic tap extravaganza, Bells of Dublin. Seiwert’s River, the second world premiere on the program, communicated a range of emotions. This dramatically charged, lyrical duet (danced by Yarbrough-Powell and Robert Kretz) was all about change and shifting directions with its beautifully orchestrated turns and lifts. One of the closing sequences was particularly memorable - Yarbrough-Powell facing Kretz in a fifth position lift just slightly off the floor, the pair spinning in a circle. Haskins’ new choreographic offering, J-I-N-G-L-E Bells, brought together nostalgic social dance and contemporary ballet. There was even a humorous nod to the famous swan cygnet variation from Swan Lake. Traditionally ‘Cool Christmas’ concludes with Smuin’s wintery White Christmas. This year, Needham-Wood premiered a re-imagined version of Smuin’s finale, one brimming with community, joy and a hybrid of choreographic styles. And the snow still fell both onstage and in the center orchestra!

I’ve remarked in the past that perhaps some editing, in terms of how many different scenes are in each act, would be helpful. This year I didn’t feel that way at all - 2016’s production was very well designed and organized by Smuin’s artistic team. With the exception of a couple of slow moments in the second half, the program had great forward motion and was thoroughly engaging.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

San Francisco Ballet - Nutcracker

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 10th, 2016

Snowflakes and sugar plums; magic and merriment – all await at San Francisco Ballet’s splendid Nutcracker, which just began its 2016 engagement on Saturday evening. Choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, this Nutcracker has it all: a forward moving narrative arc, character depth and development, thoughtful choreography, innovative artistic choices and formidable dancing. And while the Nutcracker certainly provides a meeting of holiday lore and classical ballet, Clara Stahlbaum’s journey is also a reminder of the porous space between reality and fantasy.

Act I takes its audience to the Stahlbaum family home on Christmas Eve, a space replete with all the excitement and wonder that this special evening holds. Amidst the lights, tree, gifts and fellowship, the aura of celebration and anticipation is palpable. Uncle Drosselmeyer (Rubén Martin Cintas at this performance) arrives with captivating mystery, and of course his masterful tricks and illusions. He awakens three life-size dolls to entertain the children – a jester character (Myles Thatcher) with his lithe developpés and splits; a princess doll (Lauren Parrott) with her single-footed relevés and boureés; and a Nutcracker Prince (Hansuke Yamamoto) with his parallel pas de chats and tours en l’air. The party concludes, the guests depart and everyone in the Stahlbaum residence turns in for the night. That is, until Clara (Anna Javier) comes downstairs looking for the Nutcracker doll that Drosselmeyer had given to her, and ends up falling asleep on the chaise lounge. In the moments and scenes that follow, a parallel dimension/dream world descends. Orchestrated by Drosselmeyer, furniture and surroundings transform and grow; a battle is fought between mice and toy soldiers; the Nutcracker Prince (danced by Carlos Quenedit, a cast change due to another dancer’s injury) comes to life. And during the battle scene, Alexander Reneff-Olson stole the show as the King of the Mice; his was one of the best interpretations I have ever seen, not just in this production of Nutcracker, but in many others as well. Bravo.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Act I closes with the glorious snow scene, my favorite part of the entire ballet. As Queen and King of the Snow, Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno were sublime. In the opening sequence, their unison work was spot on, and they had such suspension and release as they moved through the delicate lifts. The corps de ballet (which is always an ever-changing entity) looked great – a solid and cohesive team. And Froustey’s fouettés were a thing of technical and artistic magnificence.

Act II continues Clara’s magical sojourn to a vibrant world of diverse characters, variations and divertissements, all under the command of the Sugar Plum Fairy (an inspired performance by Sofiane Sylve). The Spanish pas de cinq handily and musically delivered their brief but complicated offering; the French trio keenly maneuvered their choreography while simultaneously managing the sometimes uncooperative ribbon wands. WanTing Zhao, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Anthony Vincent (all soloists with the company) gave an intoxicating interpretation of the Arabian pas de trois - sinuous, stretchy and sensual. But the off-center stage spacing was a little curious at times. It was unclear whether this placement was purposeful or not, though it certainly did not detract from their impassioned performance. The audience favorite Russian trio (led by Wei Wang with Benjamin Freemantle and John-Paul Simoens) delighted with acrobatic leaps, rhythmical musings and textbook unison. And Francisco Mungamba’s Chinese variation was definitely an Act II highlight – sprightly and playful, with technical accuracy and precision.

Once again, the corps impressed as the Waltzing Flowers, and as the featured soloist, Sylve shone with grace and aplomb. Tomasson’s choreography for this scene runs the gamut from turning sequences to footwork patterns, from petit allegro to grand allegro, and yet, it all clings to the foundational ‘down, up, up; down, up, up’ meter of the music’s three/four time signature. Simply gorgeous.

As the ballet nears its conclusion, there is yet another moment where reality and imagination meet. Clara transforms into an adult and she dances the grand pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince. Vanessa Zahorian and Quenedit were technically sound as they moved through this duet, their subsequent solos and then, the coda, though for me, opening night’s grand pas de deux was missing its narrative dazzle.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

DanceFAR 2016

DanceFAR 2016
Pictured: Dores André
Photo: Quinn Wharton
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
Nov 29th, 2016

DanceFAR’s (Dance For A Reason) annual fall gala never disappoints. Co-founded by Margaret Karl, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko, it has been a shining star in the San Francisco dance season for the past four years and 2016’s edition (the fifth anniversary) was no exception. Each year DanceFAR hosts a diverse group of local and visiting dance artists in an evening-length concert benefitting the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC). And aptly, this year, the gala was held on Giving Tuesday. Outstanding performances with an authentic sentiment and genuine spirit of giving back - this is DanceFAR.

Duets dominated both halves of the program, each delivering a distinct perspective on physicality and movement in space. Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Ben Needham Wood of Smuin opened the night with a stirring pas de deux from Stanton Welch’s Indigo. Toggling between luxurious flowy movements and staccato pulses, this brief excerpt left you wanting more. And the ending lift was spectacular – Yarbrough-Powell in a seated position, balanced high above Needham Wood’s head. Specified directional shifts reigned supreme in Robert Moses’ This State of Annihilation, danced by Norma Fong and Crystaldawn Bell Galante of Robert Moses’ KIN. Half unison, half partnering/soloing, this unique take on contemporary technique blended second position, arabesque and passé with intense traveling sequences, including chaînés on the diagonal, pas de basques and even some soft shoe time-step footwork. Next, Jermaine Spivey and Spenser Theberge took the stage in an excerpt from their Rather This, Then, an essay on articulation, physical possibility and in-the-moment interaction. Billed in the program as a ‘structured improvisation’, I was so curious whether there was any set phrase material or perhaps, key prompts informing this captivating work.

ODC/Dance brought a portion of Kate Weare’s Giant, one of the three ensemble offerings on the program. Mechanized patterns and lush undulating meet in this dance, as does a strong statement of control and power dynamics. Several points throughout the piece saw one dancer orchestrating and shaping the movements of another. Julia Adam’s tortured duet Grandma and the Wolfie followed, performed by Travis Bradley and Virginia Pilgrim Ramey. While compelling for its technical accomplishments, it was the form of this duet that really struck. It began almost like a solo for Pilgrim Ramey with Bradley traversing the perimeter of the stage around her. And then later, much of the initial phrase material recurred, but this time, partnered. A very interesting structural approach indeed.

An audience-favorite from last year, Art of Teknique was back with another phenomenal freestyle program of physical poetry. And dawsondancesf closed DanceFAR’s first half with an excerpt from Gregory Dawson’s Gestures and Angels, a contemporary ballet full of passion, ferocity, speed and level changes.

The second half of DanceFAR 2016 began with a dance of storytelling, an excerpt of Tristesse by Marcelo Gomes. Gomes and Sterling Baca took turns expressing their reality through movement as the other sat ‘listening’ intently downstage right. Baca’s part of the conversation was peppered with suspension and release while Gomes’ was humorous and playful, and even had a little West Side Story snapping built in. Flying Under the Radar premiered @_FUTR_, a highly technical contemporary duet with costumes that reminded of Alwin Nikolais.

Sofranko’s SFDanceworks presented the world premiere of Danielle Rowe’s For Pixie, expertly interpreted by Brett Conway and Laura O’Malley. Here was a snapshot of a couple; a glimpse into their relationship. The partnering had such a wonderful forward motion to it, entwining these two souls for this one moment in time. An emotively rich duet was proffered by Alivia Schaffer and Dwayne Schueneman of AXIS Dance Company in Judith Smith’s In Defense of Regret. Schaffer and Schueneman spent the majority of the duet near each other, but separated. When they finally grasped hands and circled each other, it was pure and poignant.

Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno of San Francisco Ballet danced the Diamonds Pas de Deux from George Balanchine’s Jewels, an elegant, regal and grand expression of technical brilliance and beauty. And while the piece does not seek to tell a story, there is a narrative fiber hidden deep in the choreography. As the dancers float, glide and move about the space, there is a subtle elusiveness at play, like they are trying to actually catch the sparkle and glimmer of a diamond. DanceFAR 2016 concluded with an excerpt from Garrett + Moulton Productions’ summer premiere, Speak, Angels by Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton. In an expression of constant motion, six soloists and a movement choir of eighteen embodied the joy, intensity and fervor that is choreography and community. A perfect ending to a glorious night.