Monday, January 27, 2020

San Francisco Ballet - "Cinderella"

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Sat, January 25th (matinee)

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in
Wheeldon's Cinderella©
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Do you ever watch a story ballet and ponder whether the expected outcome will actually transpire? Might Romeo and Juliet finally live happily ever after this time? Will Siegfried discover that Odile is part of Von Rothbart’s diabolical plot before it’s too late? Perhaps Aurora can avoid Carabosse’s spindle? When I am filled with such questions, I know I’m witnessing a great story ballet. Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is one of those greats. Every time I see it, including at this viewing, I’m on the edge of my seat wondering if Cinderella and Prince Guillaume will find their way to each other. A co-production between San Francisco Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet, the work features amazing design, stunning effects, riveting storytelling and above all, gripping choreography. When Cinderella debuted at SFB in 2013, it became an instant hit, and will surely be part of the repertory for decades to come.

There is much to love in Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Starting with the prologue, which is inspired. In the first few scenes, the viewer meets all the main characters years in the past. You see Cinderella and her father lose her mother and grieve that loss. You see Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin’s youthful mischief morph into expected duty and responsibility. While short, these early scenes provide such brilliant context and help one understand what drives the main characters. Cinderella quickly fast-forwards, the children grow up (through theatrical magic) and the ballet’s plot really gets going. As Cinderella, Frances Chung gave a genuine and vulnerable performance from start to finish, but a standout solo was at her mother’s gravesite. Running the gamut from sorrowful port de bras to playful sissones, the variation was a clearly her way of conversing with her mother. Her way of sharing her life, and all its ups and downs, with someone who isn’t physically in the same realm any longer. Soon after, her father (Tiit Helimets) arrives with her new family: stepmother Hortensia and stepsisters Edwina and Clementine. Portrayed by Sarah Van Patten, Elizabeth Powell and Ellen Rose Hummel respectively, each turned in a winning interpretation, equal parts evil, sly and at times, hilarious. More superlative performances came from Esteban Hernandez as Benjamin (his leaping acumen always astounds me), and Joseph Walsh as Prince Guillaume, who was the epitome of gallantry in every movement and gesture. And of course the enchanted forest! Absent are any friendly mice helping Cinderella ready for the ball, instead Wheeldon created a magical tapestry of characters and spirits to lead the transformation.

Act II brings us to said event, and what a lavish affair it is! The corps de ballet was as vibrant as their gorgeous gemstone costumes, designed by Julian Crouch. And so many unexpected delights imbued the choreography – the use of parallel in Cinderella’s solo and the quiet, still passé balances that countered the Prince’s bravura jumps. The shorter Act III is all about Guillaume’s journey to find the foot that fits the shoe left at the ball. It includes another clever prologue, where various members of the kingdom try-on the item, their empty chairs eventually rising to the ceiling in a huge suspended arc, almost like a mini proscenium arch further framing the action. Eventually, Cinderella and Guillaume find each other and marry, symbolized by a beautiful design moment where the chandeliers from the ball descend through a giant tree, the tree that had been planted years before at her mother’s grave.        

As wonderful as the performance was, unfortunately the experience of being at the theater was anything but. I rarely comment on this kind of thing, but this time, it’s necessary. Patrons, fans, subscribers, please, please, please remember that if you’re at a weekend matinee where the ballet is based on a children’s fairy tale, children will be in the audience. This was Cinderella after all. And in a month or so, SFB is slated to revive George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another full-length narrative that is being billed “for all ages.” Be kind. Be gracious. Be welcoming. It doesn’t cost you anything. Foster artistic curiosity. Don’t thwart it because you somehow feel inconvenienced.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

"The Christmas Ballet"

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
The Christmas Ballet
Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
December 23rd, 2019 (matinee)

This season has been all about revisiting some of the longtime holiday dance traditions that the Northern Californian region has to offer. And there are plenty – the lineage here for festive choreographic programming is significant. My final stop was at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to take in Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s twenty-fifth edition of The Christmas Ballet, a revue style program that pairs numerous dance forms and genres with jolly musical selections. Divided into two halves of short dance musings, Classical Christmas and Cool Christmas, much enchantment and joy awaits with every new number, many of which were choreographed by the company’s founder Michael Smuin. A great holiday dance sampler, indeed!

Smuin Contemporary Ballet
in Amy London's Still, Still, Still
Photo Chris Hardy
Because I’ve seen this production several times (though each year is slightly different), what follows are simply some highlights – performances and choreography that stood out as particularly noteworthy in 2019’s iteration. With its delicate balances and luxurious turns, Smuin’s Zither Carol was again part of the line-up and Maggie Carey was sublime in the treasured pointe solo – her attitude poses floated timelessly in space. Sleigh Ride, a quartet choreographed by Amy Seiwert, had some of the best unison of the day, and managed to walk that fine line of being technically demanding without looking too busy or fussy. A new addition to the mix this year, Amy London’s Still, Still, Still impressed with its lyrical elegance, grand lifts and clever incorporation of gesture. This dance for six is surely already in the running for next season’s The Christmas Ballet. Other returning favorites included Smuin’s hypnotically meditative Veni, Veni Emmanuel, interpreted by the women in the company. The walking patterns, the stage architecture, the port de bras – everything is so pure and unencumbered, and the result, powerful. Whimsical Celtic footwork and social dance patterns imbued the charming The Gloucestershire Wassail. And closing the Classical Christmas scene was Nicole Haskins’ jubilant ensemble piece Joy To The World. Grand majesty soared from the stage in every moment of this finale, especially during Ian Buchanan’s incredible multi-pirouette sequence. 

Ben Needham-Wood in
Val Caniparoli's Jingle Bells Mambo
Photo David Allen
The Christmas Ballet’s second half, Cool Christmas, is chock full of fun, novelty and humor. And while I think that some of the vignettes might be a bit dated and perhaps ready for retirement, the audience’s uproarious laughter is certainly indicative of their immense enjoyment throughout. One of the more technical dances in the act, Mengjun Chen was impeccable in Smuin’s Drummer Boy – his enviable ballon informing every beat, jump and leap. Jingle Bells was a popular musical option. Haskins’ J-I-N-G-L-E Bells featured a cute reference to Swan Lake’s famous cygnet variation and Val Caniparoli’s Jingle Bells Mambo (another stellar example of unison by Buchanan, Ben Needham-Wood and Max van der Sterre) brought the rarely seen Italian changement to the stage. But by far what I look most forward to in this act is the percussive dance. Some years it appears more prominently than in others, and this year it had a strong presence. There was the waltz clog in Droopy Little Christmas Tree, Tessa Barbour’s rhythm tap solo (with terrific toe stands) in Bells of Dublin and a new, endearing tap duet, created by Barbour to It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas. Danced by Carey and Cassidy Isaacson, its old-school tap vocabulary of back walks, time steps, essences and riffs was both winsome and nostalgic.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Oakland Ballet Company

Oakland Ballet Company
Graham Lustig’s “The Nutcracker”
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
December 21st, 2019 (matinee)

Bay Area audiences were treated to another delightful Nutcracker over the weekend as Oakland Ballet Company (OBC) brought its version, choreographed by Artistic Director Graham Lustig, to the historic Paramount Theatre. Like its neighbor across the bridge, San Francisco Ballet, this Nutcracker has deep history: OBC has been presenting the holiday tale for close to fifty years. It’s also a fairly traditional dance adaptation of Marie’s magical Christmas adventure. But what differentiates this Nutcracker and makes it so special is that it is filled with wonderfully subtle moments of connection. Choreographic gems and plot points that cleverly (and enviably) link one moment to another.

Samantha Bell and Sharon Kung
Photo John Hefti
The first of these connections happens at the very beginning of the ballet, during the famous party scene at the Stahlbaum family home on Christmas Eve. Amidst the festive whirlwind, which features elegant, sweeping pointe work for the adults, is the character of Cousin Vera (Jackie McConnell) and her suitor, The Cadet (Thomas Panto). Not present in every party scene, the inclusion of this pairing offers two points of linkage. First, it provides a hint of foreshadowing as Vera and her beau will transform into the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier in Act II. Second, it creates a direct thread to Marie, embodied by the ebullient Paunika Jones. As Vera dances her solo and partnered steps, Marie mirrors the same sequences diligently in the background, excitedly imagining her future self dancing the same variations. Fast-forward to a little later in the Act, where Lustig injected a compelling pas de deux for the Nutcracker (Skylar Burson) and Uncle Drosselmeyer (Vincent Chavez), establishing another integral connection between two important roles in the ballet, one that is rarely mined at all. That spirit of continuity continued as we moved to the snow scene. In this Nutcracker, Marie and her Prince are not bystanders in the wintry forest; instead they participate fully along with a cast of Snowmaidens and Snowballs. It makes far more sense story-wise as well as adding much choreographic beauty and variation to the tableau. Having said that, the Snowmaidens’ pointe shoes were too loud on Saturday afternoon, which unfortunately, did distract and detract from their performance. In addition, unison seemed to be a challenge. Super high extensions are impressive, no question, but achieving them can also compromise togetherness and cohesiveness of the entire group. In situations like Nutcracker’s snow (and its waltz of the flowers), that also has to be a consideration.

Charm was the order of the day as Act II’s series of dances unfolded. While there was some occasional choreographic busyness, the stage was awash with sparkle and enthusiasm. In Lustig’s Nutcracker, the Chinese divertissement is a nightingale, a refreshing approach to a difficult and controversial moment in the ballet. And as that nightingale, Sharon Kung was an absolute wonder – her consecutive pirouettes from fifth were quite something. Instead of the lengthy French variation, Lustig substitutes a courtly Baroque-inspired German quartet, which, as interpreted by Karina Eimon, Adele Hall, Brandon Perez and Yanis Eric Pikieris, had gorgeous intricacy and striking epaulement to spare. Again, Marie and the Nutcracker collaborated with the corps in this Act as well, resulting in a lovely Waltz of the Flowers. And McConnell and Panto were terrific in the grand pas de deux. Not only did they command the space technically, they kept things moving along at a great pace. The Nutcracker’s last major duet can tend to lag, but not in their more than capable hands.