Friday, December 24, 2010

"Nutcracker at Zeum" - Mark Foehringer Dance Project | SF

San Francisco Children's Museum, San Francisco, CA
December 18, 2010
Photo credit: Rob Kunkle

Mark Foehringer's “Nutcracker”, presented at the Children's Museum in San Francisco, is an absolute delight. Foehringer has taken the two-hour holiday extravaganza and compressed it into four scenes: Drosselmeyer's Toyshop, Clara's family Christmas party, Candy Land and a return to the Toyshop. This shorter “Nutcracker” is the perfect introduction for young children – they can experience classical and contemporary ballet, an engaging, linear story, and live musical accompaniment in under an hour.

One noteworthy nuance is Foehringer's in-depth treatment of Drosselmeyer. Typically, this magical, mystical character makes his first appearance during a brief prologue or during the party scene (depending on the production). Here, we see Drosselmeyer in his toyshop, actually creating the life-size dolls and other Christmas surprises. Danced by compelling performer Brian Fisher, this unique first scene is integral in setting up Drosselmeyer to be the director of the events that follow.

Foehringer also makes a special effort to demonstrate how the character's stories are intertwined. When Drosselmeyer arrives at the Christmas Eve party, he dances a pas de trois with Clara (Taylor Ullery) and the Nephew (Chad Dawson), who later becomes the Nutcracker Prince - a very active personification of the narrative (Clara loves the Nutcracker Prince, whom Drosselmeyer has created and given to her). When Clara journeys to 'Candy Land', she is greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy filling the ambassador role: welcoming Clara and orchestrating the citizens of 'Candy Land'. In many versions of “Nutcracker”, Clara and the Prince are not participants, but rather passive observers; they simply sit and watch the different divertissements. Here, 'Candy Land's' guests were incorporated into all the dances. Drosselmeyer partnered the Spanish Chocolate, and everyone was involved in Chinese Tea. As the Sugar Plum Fairy (Lizanne Roman) began her variation, Clara stood behind her, mimicking and imitating her choreography. Then, the Sugar Plum Fairy actually began to demonstrate and pass down her movements to Clara. Foehringer transformed this famous solo into a spatial pas de deux for Clara and the SPF, a perfect metaphor for the Queen and her apprentice. It was also very fitting that her's (the Sugar Plum Fairy) is the last face that Clara sees as 'Candy Land' disappears.

You must add Mark Foehringer Dance Project | SF's “Nutcracker at Zeum” to your December to-do list. His is a charming jaunt through the traditional holiday tale of Clara and her Nutcracker, particularly appropriate for the newest generation of theatergoers and balletomanes. Bravo to Foehringer and his company for their significant accomplishment!

San Francisco Ballet - "Nutcracker"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA
December 15, 2010

Like so many other Bay Area residents, San Francisco Ballet's “Nutcracker” is a favorite holiday tradition of mine - one that I missed greatly when I was living on the East Coast. So, walking through the familiar doors of the War Memorial Opera House to see Helgi Tomasson's magnificent production was particularly special this year. It was like coming home.

Lorena Feijoo in Tomasson's "Nutcracker" - Photo credit: Erik Tomasson
If you believe “Nutcracker” is just more December fluff, you just haven't seen a good (or in San Francisco Ballet's case, a great) version yet. Tomasson's interpretation of Clara Stahlbaum's story not only captures the fun, fantasy and festivity of childhood but also communicates the more complex narrative elements, specifically that of guidance. At every point in Clara's journey, there are stabilizing forces for her to rely upon: at the party, it is her parents; during the battle, the Nutcracker Prince becomes her protector; in the forest, the Snow King and Queen steer her in the right direction and upon arriving in the 'Land of Sweets', she meets yet another role model, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Although each of these characters is very different, their interactions with Clara speak to a common denominator. Like any child, she needs those in her life to be helpful, trustworthy and dependable, and they all fulfill that requirement.

In this particular version (which premiered in 2004), Tomasson made some bold and somewhat risky choices for the Sugar Plum Fairy. In his ballet, she still presides over the 'Land of Sweets' with a combination of strength and softness; regal but not at all overbearing. She facilitates the different character dances and welcomes Clara to bear witness to the wonder and excitement. With that persona, it makes perfect sense for her to lead the Waltz of the Flowers. This is not the case in every “Nutcracker”. Often, a few of the flowers or even a completely different character are designated the soloist(s), but here, Tomasson opted (very appropriately) for the lead dancer in this variation to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. At the end of Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy's role is also very different than most “Nutcrackers”. The variation and grand pas de deux typically danced by the SPF is instead given to grown-up Clara. But, the Sugar Plum Fairy still maintains her facilitating role in these final events. It is she who introduces the transformed Clara to her Cavalier Prince and subsequent invites them to command the stage.

Though I absolutely love SFB's “Nutcracker”, it is impossible to ignore the growing pains that are happening in the women's corps de ballet. The senior corps members are the saving grace; veteran dancers who know that the snow scene and the waltz of the flowers are not the moments to pull focus. They understand that these two dances require team cohesiveness, synchronicity and exact timing. Some of the newer dancers haven't completely grasped what it means to be in the corps and how important the corps is. Several of them were acting like soloists during these group dances inserting overly dramatic hand gestures along with piqué arabesques and developpés that were way too high compared to everyone else (incidentally making them late for the next steps). Show off your technical capabilities in class, rehearsal and auditions, not in these two scenes. And, most important, learn from the senior corps members – they are an invaluable resource.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

ODC - "The Velveteen Rabbit"

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
December 3, 2010

"The Nutcracker" is an institution in the Bay Area.  With so many fantastic local versions to choose from, any "Nutcracker" fan can attend Christmas Eve at The Stahlbaum's several times during the holidays.  But there is much more to December dance than the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Mouse King.  If "Nutcracker" isn't your cup of tea, there are other San Francisco festive dance offerings to take it, including ODC's long-running presentation of "The Velveteen Rabbit", currently playing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  Charming and delightful, "The Velveteen Rabbit" is a testament to how the fusion of dance genres can provide narrative clarity.  The traditional and contemporary movement vocabulary employed by choreographer KT Nelson achieves unprecedented results, making "The Velveteen Rabbit" a holiday must-see.

Ballet and modern peacefully co-exist in this enchanting dance version of Margery Williams' story.  The family Christmas celebration explodes with intricate choreographic matching - double attitude piqué turns flowing into sprightly sautés.  Flexed feet and parallel developpés coupled with assemblés and grand jetés, and like experiencing any good food and wine pairing, the combination seemed logical, obvious and essential.

I did have mixed feelings about the nursery's toybox scene.  The choreography for the 'skin horse' was perfectly matched to its older persona: steady, staid, and level.  And, the spatial pas de deux between the rabbit and the horse was brilliant.  The rabbit's movements were a less mature version of the horse's choreography, illustrating the different age of the two toys.  At one point, the rabbit's foot moved to a back tendu, while the horse's leg lifted off the ground in attitude derrière.  This was a glimpse into the rabbit's journey from newness to being known.  Unfortunately, the choreography for the other toys was lacking.  These fancy figures were supposed to illustrate their feeling of superiority with new-fangled mechanical capabilities and flashy costumes.  The dancers were definitely acting out that role, but their step variations did not really embody a sense of prestige or entitlement.  Perhaps if the choreography had tended more towards bravado and grandiose-ness, the disposition of the different toys would have been better communicated.     

Like many holiday dance productions, the children from the ODC school play an important part in "The Velveteen Rabbit".  These kids were incredible: they were well-rehearsed, had lovely technique and confident stage presence.  I would even go so far as to say that their synchronization was better than I've seen in several "Nutcracker" party scenes.  The Nana character was also much more compelling and captivating than her "Nutcracker" counterpart, Mother Ginger.  Because Nelson uses two dancers to create Nana, her feet actually do choreography - turns, jumps, walks, runs.  This transformed Nana from a glorified set piece into a dynamic dance personality. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

Black Swan

Photo credit: Niko Tavernise
Director - Darren Aronofsky
Writers - Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin
Choreographer - Benjamin Millepied

Most mainstream dance films are part of the romantic dramedy genre, but "Black Swan" is anything but typical.  This haunting dance movie chronicles the cycle of obsession through three phases: normalization, realization and confrontation.  We meet Nina (beautifully interpreted by Natalie Portman), a stunning, talented yet troubled ballerina - she is the new star; an up and comer, slated to dance the coveted role of Odette/Odile.  Moving up the ranks from soloist to principal is an exercise in duality itself; excitement and accomplishment coupled with anxiety and nervousness.  Most dancers find a way to navigate this new territory, but for Nina, a fragile individual already teetering on the brink of sanity, the consequences of her promotion are disastrously fatal.  Though set in the world of ballet, "Black Swan" really focuses on the psychology of delusion.

One of the first things you notice about Nina is how her compulsive ritualistic behaviors have normalized in her life, almost to the point that the bizarreness has anesthetized into regularity.  Despite being rooted in self-hatred and her desperate need for perfection, these patterns have de-emphasized and re-interpreted into normalcy and comfort for her.  When these demons are habitualized, they become hard to identify and define and thus, impossible to escape.  One particular manifestation for Nina is in the picking and pulling of her skin.  Again, the underlying issue here is perfection (or the appearance of perfection), so when faced with a blemish, cut or scratch, Nina is unable to let it heal on its own.  Every mark on her body was far more than just a physical abnormality.  For her, it spoke of a flawed existence and thus, she sadistically and methodically peeled it all away.  But this process of normalization can only last so long.  The facade will eventually crumble when you are forced to admit, confront and feel that which you have buried.  Nina's casting as the fractured Swan Queen was the catalyst that released her own fractured personality.  She was not taking the role into her life, the role was embodying what was already happening in her mind.  Living it out inwardly and now outwardly (in the studio and on the stage) ultimately took her over the edge and brought the shattered pieces of her subconscious to the surface in a way that she had been able to control in the past.  She had moved away from normalization and onto the processes of realization and confrontation.  For some, this emotional journey provides healing and understanding, but for Nina, the pain could not be conquered.  

"Black Swan" is another movie that purposely utilizes shaky camera work.  I was actually a little surprised that there wasn't a note on the theater door warning that people with motion sickness might experience some dizziness throughout the film.  No matter how jarring it felt in the audience, what an appropriate choice for Portman's Nina.  An unsteady frame for a neurotic psyche.