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:

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