Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!"

Smuin Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
December 24th, 2014

The twentieth edition of Smuin Ballet’s annual holiday production did not disappoint. With equal parts traditional and contemporary dance works, “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” closed 2014 with a hearty dose of festivity and celebration.

Titled ‘Classical Christmas’, Act I is all about technical ballet and time-honored holiday music. And of the fourteen short scenes, several (both returning favorites and new premieres) were stand out hits. Michael Smuin’s “Domine” was an elegant vehicle for company veteran Susan Roemer and newer Smuin dancer Nicole Haskins; both women floated ethereally throughout the entire duet. Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert experimented with the challenging pas de cinq structure in “Caroling, Caroling/Bright, Bright”. Lightness immediately abounded as the cast entered from stage right, and they aptly handled Seiwert’s significant choreographic requirements. Roemer again proved herself as a star of “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” with her interpretation of Smuin’s “Ave Maria”. From simple walking to flat-footed promenades to contemporary piqué turns, she captivated. Almost all dancers perform solo work, but not every dancer can command the stage during a solo like Roemer did on Christmas Eve.

Always a treat, “The Gloucestershire Wassail” is a delightful marriage of cultural/folkloric/Celtic movement and percussive dance. The unison in this piece has been better in previous years, though this particular cast made up for it with their pure, palpable, authentic joy. Act I’s second premiere, Nicole Haskins’ “Fantasia”, was absolutely lovely. As is common with most fantasia-forms, Haskins opted to mix styles, genres and structures to create a fun and unique hybrid. It was such a success, and had an almost ‘cheeky’ ending as Terez Dean leapt into Jonathan Powell’s arms.

Following intermission, we were onto the sixteen segments that make up Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’. Company dancers Weston Krukow and Ben Needham-Wood choreographed the new premieres for this second half, “Mean and Green” and “Frosty the Snowman”, respectively. These humorous romps provided a nice addition and variety to an Act that otherwise was a little too similar to the past few year’s productions. Having said that, Sarah Nyfield sparkled in “La Calandria”. The foot percussion mixed with pointe work was out of this world and her petit allegro combination, particularly the assemblés, was something to behold. Nyfield also has these strong, lingering balances that Smuin Ballet, or the new Smuin Ballet, is becoming known for.
Every season, Smuin Ballet produces a variety of work in different formats, with one of the favorites being a collection of shorter scenes. This year’s “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” contained a remarkable number - thirty vignettes of varying length. And while the production came in at a very reasonable two hours, it does seem like each Act could afford to have slightly fewer sketches.  

Pictured: Rachel Furst, Photo: David Allen    

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?