Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"The Hard Nut"

Mark Morris Dance Group
presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
December 15th, 2012

Dance in December would not be complete without the “Nutcracker”, and Bay Area dance in December would not be complete without alternative “Nutcrackers”. They are everywhere and there is truly something for everyone. One of the best surrogates is Mark Morris Dance Group’s “The Hard Nut”, choreography by the great Mark Morris himself. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 book, “Nutcracker and the Mouseking”, Morris has injected his unique flair into the story of Marie and her Prince, carefully placing it in the swinging 1970s. With Adrianne Lobel’s set design, costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz, and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under the direction of George Cleve, “The Hard Nut” is a delight for the senses.

Following Hoffmann’s narrative, Act I begins at the same place and time as most “Nutcracker” productions: Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home. With Morris’ retro concept, there were a few extra special (and humorous) touches. If not for Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, we could have easily been watching “The Monkees’ Christmas Special” or “A Very Scooby-Doo Holiday”. The guests eagerly joined in the evening’s festivities, dancing versions of ‘the hussle’ and ‘the cakewalk’ while sipping drinks from old school hi-ball glasses. As usual, the entertainment for the party guests was provided by life-sized dolls, though appropriately, ‘Droid’ and ‘Judy Jetson-style’ characters were substituted for the typical jester and nutcracker.

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Twenty-two women and men danced Act I’s finale: Morris’ inspired snow scene. Whipping around the stage in gorgeous architectural formations, the dancers threw handfuls of snow, corresponding perfectly to accented chords in the score. As found in most Morris ballets, he begins the action, movement and choreography off-stage in the wings, which leads to an unmatched continuity, consistency and flow. The series of canoned saut de basque turns deserve special mention as the Zellerbach stage was transformed into a rare combination of blizzard and fireworks. It was like a life-size snow globe.

Act II unveiled ‘The Hard Nut’ portion of the story, featuring the King (Mark Morris), the Queen (John Heginbotham) and Princess Pirlipat (Jenn Weddel), followed by the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French sequences. These latter divertissements were cleverly campy and choreographically sound: the hops on pointe in the Chinese variation a pleasant surprise. Morris’ take on the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ combined his signature modern dance vocabulary with imaginative staging; another use of choreographic canon creating an actual ‘blooming’ sensation.     

Sunday, December 16, 2012

San Francisco Ballet - "Nutcracker"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 13th, 2012

Being slightly surprised by some recent musings on the San Francisco Ballet’s current “Nutcracker”, I want to state for the record that Helgi Tomasson’s version of the Christmas tale is not just good, it’s transcendent. His attention to the narrative is flawless, especially in his ability to match choreography and character in the divertissements.

Dana Genshaft and Sean Orza in Tomasson's "Nutcracker"
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Act I’s ‘Dancing Dolls’ provide our first example of ‘character meeting choreography’ as Drosselmeyer (the first time I’ve seen Yuri Possokhov in the role) takes three toy dolls, super-sizes them and brings them to life. First is the ‘jack-in-the-box’ character who leaps out of a Christmas present to surprise the party guests at the Stahlbaum home. His unpredictability and off-balanced-ness sang throughout the short solo with one noted exception: a perfectly square final pirouette. Dana Genshaft followed as ‘the doll’; pretend, rigid and unreal, she was a full-size replica of a child’s toy. Her straight-kneed boureés, sharp relevés and mechanical arms spoke to the main theme in the entire ballet: the intersection of make-believe and reality. Last of course was ‘the Nutcracker’ himself, a steadfast and powerful figure, whose strength was further revealed through his variation of parallel sissones and attitude fouettés.

The divertissements of Act II – Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, French and Russian – are also models of character and choreographic consistency. For Spanish, Tomasson taps into the stylistic arms and positions that already exist in the classical ballet syllabus. With some added dynamic flare alongside staccato lifts, the result is a Spanish pas de cinq that is the picture of exuberant fire. While hyperextension of the legs and extreme flexibility in the back can at times present problems, in the Arabian trio they work to the choreographer’s advantage, revealing a sultry mysteriousness. Tomasson’s choreography for this sequence always brings to mind Gerald Arpino’s “Light Rain” for the Joffrey Ballet - in a good way. The acrobatics and allegro of the Chinese vignette give an aura of elegance and lightness, perfectly executed by Daniel Deivison. French, danced at this performance by Kimberly Braylock, Megan Amanda Ehrlich and Rebecca Rhodes, exhibits an unpredicted duality, toggling between the sexy allure of the ‘can-can’ steps and the demure femininity of the ribbons (though I must admit, the ribbon props make me nervous every year). The Russian variation was as spectacular as ever, and it was also the first time I have seen it performed without Pascal Molat in the lead. Hansuke Yamamoto did a superb job, both in his technique and his stage presence. Though Tomasson’s choreography definitely meets the character required by each divertissement, unison in each of these dances can be a bit of a challenge from time to time.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Sasha DeSola’s glorious performance in the grand pas de deux. DeSola was just recently promoted to soloist, and she has met this challenge head on. Her technique has always been super solid, and that continues to ring true. But there is a change in her. Her command and air have developed substantially without affecting her youthful energy or obvious joy. One can see why she has moved out of the corps past some of her peers. 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Ballet San Jose - "Nutcracker"

San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
December 8th, 2012

With its brand new “Nutcracker”, Ballet San Jose continues to inject life, vision and vitality into the South Bay’s performing arts scene. Choreographed by BSJ’s own Karen Gabay, this full-length holiday extravaganza is a thoughtful and fresh interpretation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, complete with elegant dancing and striking originality.

Following the orchestral prelude, the audience is welcomed to a Christmas Eve celebration. Dr. & Mrs. Stahlbaum, Fritz and Marie are enjoying the festivities with their friends and anticipating the arrival of Drosselmeier. In Gabay’s version, the child Marie is danced by an adult, Maria Jacobs-Yu at this performance. Though present in many “Nutcrackers”, this age discrepancy can come across as strange, melodramatic and badly overacted. Not here. Jacobs-Yu was, in fact, one of the best Maries I have ever seen, making a complete theatrical transformation. Her buoyant movements expressed and created a true, youthful joy - the ballon in her Act I battement jetés providing a particularly fantastic example. And, the childlike wonder and amazement that she conveyed when the Nutcracker became the Prince late in Act I was both palpable and incredibly genuine.

Party scenes frequently contain an ‘entertainment’ portion for the onstage guests, usually facilitated by the mysterious Drosselmeier. Often a type of magic show, Gabay’s “Nutcracker” opted instead to stage ‘The Hard Nut’ story for the party guests and the audience. ‘The Hard Nut’ makes up the middle third of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Nutcracker” book, yet is often left out of the ballet entirely. It was delightful to see this narrative brought to life and put back into the ballet where it helps to explain the link between the Nutcracker and the Prince. Particular attention must be paid to the two suitors in this scene (Akira Takahashi and Peter Hershey) for their amazing precision and unison work. The choreography for this duo (and for many others throughout the ballet as well) also revealed Gabay’s clear talent for incorporating ample batterie in both men’s and women’s variations.

As we moved beyond the party into the snow and forest scenes, there were some noted cast omissions: no snow queen, no snow king and no sugar plum fairy. Though surprising at first, Gabay’s choices were both smart and narratively sound. Without a snow queen, king or sugar plum fairy, Marie and the Nutcracker Prince (Ramon Moreno) retain the primary focus and remain the stars of the ballet, which is of course, right on point. To that end, Jacobs-Yu and Moreno danced many different pas de deuxs throughout the evening, all of which were absolutely lovely: interesting lifts coupled with an innovative treatment of arabesque at its varying heights. Occasionally, the duets got a little busy, almost like there were too many steps for not quite enough music. But the majority of their dancing was a joy to watch and the choreography highlighted their individual strengths: Moreno’s powerful jump and Jacobs-Yu’s classic pirouettes (a completely square preparation without any hint of ‘winding up’).

Photo: Robert Shomler

Act II journeyed to ‘A Christmas Forest’ for four inspired divertissements: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian (French was missing for some unknown reason). I am a sucker for any dancemaker who utilizes the full petit allegro oeuvre, including such unsung heroes as temps de cuisse and entrechat trois. Along with the presence of second position in choreography (certainly an ode to Balanchine), Gabay has turned these traditional vignettes into her own  combination of accuracy and newness. Next came the Waltz of the Flowers, which in Ballet San Jose’s “Nutcracker” is a dance for eight women and eight men. With so much flow and physicality, this partnered group sequence oozes elegance. And because of the numerous lifts, the ‘down, up, up’ pulse of the ¾ time signature was given much more of an emphasis, leading to an important, and albeit too rare, interdependence between the music and the movement. The Nutcracker Prince and Marie danced the leads in the Waltz, again propelling them to where they were meant to be: at the center of the ballet. 

Accompaniment by Symphony Silicon Valley was the icing on the cake.  Under the direction of conductor George Daugherty, the music was dynamic, articulate and interactive, exactly what is required of and demanded by a Tchaikovsky score. Daugherty and the musicians of Symphony Silicon Valley were adept in creating a conversation between the instruments, allowing for a more complete understanding of the subjects, themes, answers and counterpointe present in the entire “Nutcracker” composition. 

For more on the "Nutcracker", read my review of E.T.A. Hoffman's book on Dance Advantage:


Sunday, December 02, 2012

"reveries and elegies"

presented by Mary Armentrout Dance Theater 
The Milkbar, Oakland
December 1st, 2012

The queen of Bay Area post-modern dance is back with her newest performance installation, “reveries and elegies”. Mary Armentrout Dance Theater has created a multi-section, site-specific, mobile work that will live and breathe in four different spaces over the next three months; the Milkbar in Oakland being its first stop this past weekend. Performed by an all-female cast (Natalie Greene, Frances Rosario, Erin Malley and Armentrout herself), “reveries and elegies” invites the viewer on a multi-disciplined journey of process and discovery. During Judson Dance Theater’s heyday (early 1960s), experimentation, absurdity and the peripheral aspects of performance came together with dance and choreography in a vast theatrical incubator. The pioneers of post-modern dance embarked upon this exchange of imaginative ideas more than fifty years ago and Mary Armentrout Dance Theater is one of the closest representations we have of their legacy.

Photo: Ian Winters
Through “reveries and elegies’” seven different scenes, narrative themes and compositional tools brought content and structure together.  Doors were one such narrative device. Doorways and doors themselves have an obvious purpose: to allow entrances and exits from a particular space.  But in Armentrout’s work, these doors say so much more and ask so many different questions: are they leading somewhere or providing an escape; do they reveal or hide; are they keeping one out or letting one in? These propositions were most apparent in the first two vignettes, where the actual opening and closing of doors was combined with a video overlay of Armentrout repeating similar entrances and exits. The combination of the two (the actual and the projected) provided a multi-level visual, reiterating Armentrout’s narrative complexity.

Repetition was also an important theatrical and compositional tool used throughout the piece both in text and in movement. All of the seven scenes had some version of “reveries and elegies’” chosen phrasal accompaniment – ‘life is so strange’ – sometimes spoken live, sometimes recorded. Other segments used gestural repetition in the old-school dance-theater style. The fifth movement (‘reverie of dislocation #1: CONTENT’) found Armentrout continually breaking dishes by throwing them onto a cement floor, indicating fragmentation and the difference between perception and reality. There was an obvious audible shock every time she dropped a dish, but again, much more was underlying this repeated action. And, repetition in dance theater has a very dizzying effect of not only emphasizing a point but also anesthetizing the audience to that act in the same moment. 

“reveries and elegies” brought video into a much more dominant role. Movement was definitely present throughout the hour and fifty minute installation; however, the majority of it was reflected on screen, with just a few of the segments having in person codified modern dance sequences. My favorite was the second divertissement, a solo movement study entitled, ‘elegy for the things we will lose’. Here was a clear statement on the duality of searching: for a feeling; a sensory déjà vu; a hint of understanding. To that end, parallel boureés on high demi-pointe were employed, demonstrating instances of uncertainty, imbalance and precariousness. In contrast, they were juxtaposed against a recurring homebase posture of comfort and security: Armentrout lying on her side with legs extended and feet flexed in a small parallel second position.    

The fourth section (‘elegy in the dying of the light #1’) was another highlight. A quartet for all four women, they appeared and disappeared up and down a staircase, morphing in and out of view in a gestural collage. I couldn’t totally tell whether they were playing different characters or perhaps exhibiting different aspects of the same character, but the visual was so intoxicating that I don’t know if it actually mattered. Each of them engaged in a purposely overdone, melodramatic, mimetic vocabulary phrase. With the accompanying candelabras and Southern Bell styled dresses, it was like watching an old movie, one in which the heroine might have had multiple personality disorder.

“reveries and elegies’” makes three more stops: Interface Gallery (486-49th Street in Oakland), CounterPULSE (1310 Mission Street in San Francisco) and Baker Beach. Do not miss the opportunity to experience post-modern dance as it was intended. 

Further details and information can be found at: http://www.maryarmentroutdancetheater.com/