Monday, December 15, 2014


San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 14th, 2014

It’s that time of year again – San Francisco Ballet has just begun their annual “Nutcracker” at the War Memorial Opera House. This season marks an important milestone, as it is ten years since the company premiered Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s updated version of the classic Christmas ballet. It is a glorious production, full of merriment, festivity and optimism.

Even if you see “Nutcracker” every December, there is something new to discover each year whether it be outstanding performances (individuals or groups), narrative revelations or spectacular design elements. This year, it was the sequence of scenes that struck a chord. At each plot point, Tomasson crafted Clara’s journey with clever and creative insight and as such, similarly guided the entire audience’s experience.

We begin in the familiar – Act I’s festive party scene. Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home is quite grand and fancy, yet it still contains all the expected holiday images: Christmas tree, gifts and guests. All are infused with anticipation, excitement and there is even a hearty dose of magic. After some joyous dancing and much general regalement, night falls, the party ends and the mood shifts. As Clara (portrayed by Amanda Jue) falls asleep, we see the start of a transformation. Drosselmeyer (the incomparable Val Caniparoli) orchestrates this ‘in between’ state where reality and fantasy start to collide - furniture moves by itself, the Christmas tree grows, and a battle erupts between toy soldiers and life-size mice. During this scene, the Nutcracker doll that Clara has been given for Christmas also comes to life. After defeating the King of the Mice, he removes his mask and becomes the Nutcracker Prince (at this performance, new principal Joseph Walsh). The Prince dances for Clara – when Walsh’s piqués morphed into multiple attitude turns, it was something to behold – and then the pair is led through a snow-filled forest, the final leg of transition. Tomasson’s snow scene is itself filled with internal transitory moments as boureés grow into piqués and pas de chats evolve into grand jetés.

Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson's
Photo ©Erik Tomasson
Act II finds Clara and the Prince arriving in a land of fantasy and wonder, greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy (one of my favorite ballerinas, Mathilde Froustey). A host of nations dance for their new guests, with a particularly spectacular Russian variation. The choreography for this short divertissement is always thrilling but this was the first time I’ve ever seen it performed without anyone from the soloist or principal rank. Led by Wei Wang with Francisco Mungamba and Francisco Sebastiao, the unison and technique were flawless. Froustey’s Sugar Plum Fairy was a delight. There is so much to love about her dancing: fluid turns, genuine stage presence, intense musicality and phrasing, super high jumps followed by silent landings and balances that freeze time. Towards the end of Act II, yet another moment of change occurs as Clara transforms into an adult (danced by Frances Chung). Chung and Walsh were absolutely sublime in the grand pas de deux; I hope to see more of their pairing in the coming season. Sunday night’s full-cast finale had a couple of rough moments, but the recovery in each circumstance was phenomenally good.

And then, in the final scene, we return to the Stahlbaum home to find Clara asleep on the chaise holding her Nutcracker doll. As she awakes and greets her mother, all are left to wonder, was it really a dream?     

Friday, November 21, 2014


Post:Ballet presents
Z Space, San Francisco
November 20th, 2014

Post:Ballet’s “Hi-5” program, running this weekend at Z Space in San Francisco’s Mission District, is all about newness. New dance, new casting, new accompaniment, new collaboration and most notably, the company’s first ever evening-length fall concert. In just five short years, Artistic Director Robert Dekkers, the performing artists, and the entire Post:Ballet family have built an arts institution that was so needed in today’s contemporary landscape – one that holds onto technical excellence while being unafraid of risk. The results have turned each Post:Ballet production into an anticipated event, and have endeared the company to dance aficionados and newcomers alike.

For this debut fall engagement, Dekkers arranged the “Hi-5” program from the oldest work (his first for Post:Ballet) to the new world premiere. 2010’s “Flutter” is one of my favorite pieces; not just from this troupe’s repertory, but overall. I never tire of it and each viewing has the power to surprise. Opening night’s performance was no exception with Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Christian Squires and Vanessa Thiessen taking on the dynamic trio (of this group, I’d only seen Squires dance “Flutter” before). And, for the first time ever, the accompaniment was performed live by The Living Earth Show. “Flutter” is such a contemporary work, yet at the same time, its structural design and construction speak from history. The three dancers are in constant motion, moving both independently and interdependently, like a three-part invention. Within the unison and canoned sequences, unexpected and gorgeous deceptive cadences abound. And if you look closely, you will see some genius fugal patterns in Dekkers’ choreography including instances of augmentation, diminution and inversion.

Up next was 2011’s “Sixes and Seven”, a delicate, specific solo full of intricacies. Again having seen this piece before, I was struck by how new casting has the capacity to change a work, not only providing an opportunity to see company artists in different roles, but also revealing new aspects of choreography. Tetyana Martyanova brought a fresh articulation and intonation to “Sixes and Seven”. As she approached each step, whether large or small, her attack was strong, yet elegant.  

The physically stark “Yours is Mine” is not brand new – Dekkers choreographed it this
Pictured: Raychel Diane Weiner
with Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Aidan DeYoung
and Christian Squires in "Yours is Mine"
Photo: Natalia Perez
summer for Atlanta Ballet and it was also featured earlier this week in DanceFAR’s benefit gala. But for much of the San Francisco audience, “Yours is Mine” was a new experience. It begins with a competitive, animalistic trio (Bannon-Neches, Squires and Aidan DeYoung) who, when faced with a change in their environment, react combatively to that altered circumstance. Acrobatics and martial arts inform the choreography and blend seamlessly with the contemporary (and even some traditional) physical vocab. Just over half way through, Raychel Diane Weiner enters the picture and at once, everything changes, drastically and dramatically. Her hypnotic energy places the men into a trance-like state; like she was casting a spell on them with her presence and with her movement.

Closing the “Hi-5” program was the world premiere of “Do Be: Tassel”, the first installment of a yearlong collaboration between Post:Ballet and The Living Earth Show. This piece is theatrical, unexpected and incredibly post-modern. One of the primary tenets driving the post-modern genre (in dance, at least) is how the line between life and art is porous and blurry. “Do Be: Tassel” aptly captures this sentiment. The stage is transformed into a living/dining room scene and the cast begins the piece posed amongst that set. A movement phrase of different postures evolves, which is communicated in several forms - sometimes the cast is in unison; sometimes dancers only do half of the sequence before moving on; or occasionally someone joins in part-way through. And while dancing, the ensemble is also in the process of taking off their costumes, and so, “Do Be: Tassel” unfolds in various states of dress and undress. Towards the end, the cast furiously throws clothing out of suitcases and chooses new items to wear. This disorganized moment is both delicious and poignant because process is messy. The space between life and art is not neat and tidy; it isn’t tied up in a perfect package. “Do Be: Tassel” breaks facades, digs beneath the surface and is committed to sparking a conversation about this reality. 

Post:Ballet in "Do Be: Tassel"
Photo: Tricia Cronin


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

DanceFAR 2014

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco
November 18th, 2014

Every year, San Francisco has its fair share of amazing dance concerts – from stunning classical performances to outstanding contemporary programs. Yet, even in 2014, these two genres still remain pretty separate. But then there are the special evenings that bring traditional and modern dance companies together on a single stage, once again reminding San Francisco audiences of the great artistic breadth that exists in this region.

DanceFAR, Dance For A Reason, provides one such opportunity with its annual gala event, this year held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. But more than just being a phenomenal sampling of what the San Francisco professional dance scene has to offer, Dance For A Reason is all about giving back. All the show’s artistic contributions are donated, with the program’s proceeds benefiting The Cancer Prevention Institute of California and the UCSF Melanoma Center. In just three short years, DanceFAR co-founders Margaret Karl, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko have created something very special to support a cause that affects so many.

Pictured: Margaret Karl and Garen Scribner
Photo: Sandy Lee
Act I opened with Smuin Ballet in an excerpt from Garrett Ammon’s “Serenade For Strings”. What began as quiet, flowing movement quickly exploded into a wave of physicality – both innocent and exciting at the same time. Ballet San Jose’s Lahna Vanderbush and Kendall Teague followed in an excerpt from “Minus 16” by Ohad Naharin, a hauntingly stark duet. Post:Ballet brought Robert Dekkers’ “Yours Is Mine”, an intensely physical quartet with underscores of confrontation, aggression, competition and seduction. Special guests Ana Lopez and Garrett Patrick Anderson from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago communicated the idiosyncrasies of a relationship in an excerpt from “Deep Down Dos”. Alejandro Cerrudo’s choreography was full of hope, looking beyond the present moment. And the duet was beautifully bookended with the same intertwined posture at the beginning and the conclusion. Kate Weare’s “Drop Down” for ODC/Dance is one of the most charged pas de deuxs I have ever seen. And even though I know that there is a dramatic fall about two thirds of the way through, it still has the power to shock me each time. Act I closed with San Francisco Ballet in Hans Van Manen’s “Solo”. This trio (danced by Hansuke Yamamoto, Joseph Walsh and Pascal Molat) is full of unexpected turns and sculptural balances. But the most compelling part of “Solo” is that, as the title suggests, it speaks to and reveals individual personalities. Incidentally, Walsh’s sequence of piqué turns ending in arabesque was one of the best combinations of the entire night.

Tap artist Joe Orrach quite literally kicked off the second Act with two lightning-fast percussive dance solos. Orrach was a great addition to the line-up; the unaccompanied a cappella segments in his performance being of particular note. Up next was SFDanceworks in Penny Saunders “Berceuse”, danced by Pablo Piantino and Saunders herself. “Berceuse” is a gorgeous duet full of shifting circumstances – directional, weight, centeredness and the choreography itself has a rare quality of being both accessible yet incredibly complex. Maurya Kerr’s tinypistol offered an excerpt from “Wantful”, a tense contest of intention and exertion of will. Guest artists Danielle Rowe and Brett Conway from Nederlands Dans Theater I danced Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot’s “Softly, As I Leave You”. A day later, I am still thinking about their performance and definitely hope to see this piece again. Its mixture of trapped desperation and unencumbered abandon was certainly a highlight of DanceFAR 2014. Last but certainly not least, Alonzo King LINES Ballet took the stage in an excerpt of King’s “Rasa”, complete with live musical accompaniment. The company dancers shone brightly in this physical tour de force, where different styles and movement genres were astutely woven into a masterful movement hybrid.