Monday, December 21, 2015

"Graham Lustig's The Nutcracker"

Pictured: Snowmaidens from
Graham Lustig's The Nutcracker
Photo: John Hefti
Oakland Ballet Company
Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
December 20th, 2015

Sunday afternoon at the grand Paramount Theatre proved yet again that there is so much to love about Oakland. Before a sold-out house, Oakland Ballet closed 2015 with a delightful production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Artistic Director Graham Lustig and accompanied live by the Oakland Symphony, under the direction of Michael Morgan. This version of the classic Christmas story is a must-see for East Bay dance patrons – intriguing choreography, talented artists and attention to narrative intricacies. At the same time, there is something more steeped in this and every Oakland Ballet performance. History. Lineage. Here is a thriving professional ballet institution that has been part of a city’s artistic landscape for more than fifty years – being in the midst of that legacy is certainly a special and unique experience.  

One of the joys of Nutcracker season is when you see a version for the first time. A new-to-you Nutcracker injects a level of novelty and innovation into the traditional holiday ballet – new design, new choreography, new vision. And this was the first time I had seen Oakland Ballet’s current adaptation. In Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, the story is told through the eyes of Marie, danced by Ramona Kelley. The tale begins in typical Nutcracker fashion at her family’s home during a festive Christmas Eve party. But as this first scene unfolds, it becomes clear that this Nutcracker is anything but typical. It is memorable. The party is full of lovely choreographic sequences, making it much more dance-y than other productions: Marie and her friends’ series of piqués, pointework and partnering for the parent couples, arabesque allongée for Cousin Vera and her beau (Megan Terry and Nathan Cottam). There is a lot of action onstage, but it never once looked crowded, nor did the dancers ever have to truncate their movements. And the acting was superb. When Marie received and first danced with her Nutcracker doll, Kelley was a picture of pure joy while still maintaining her sparkling footwork.

As Act I continued, Lustig added some distinct marks of continuity. When the Nutcracker evolves from a tiny wooden doll into a full-size being, Lustig choreographed a pas de deux for him to dance with Drosselmeyer. While it was certainly an interesting choreographic moment, it also made so much sense as a plot point. These two characters are connected and linked; they should have a pas de deux together. Though I must say that I was worried throughout that duet and the ensuing battle scene that the head of the Nutcracker’s costume was going to come off prematurely, and that the mice were going to trip on their long tails.

After the battle is won, the Nutcracker does take off his mask and becomes a real-life Prince (danced by Gregory DeSantis). The first interactions between he and Marie were enchanting – shyness built into the parallel bourées; elation in the high lifts and spinning fish dive. Marie and the Nutcracker Prince went on to lead the winter forest scene, which glistened with snowmaidens and fluffy snowballs (and was vocally accompanied by the Mt. Eden High School Women’s Ensemble). Having the main characters reign over and travel through the snow forest was yet another example of Lustig’s attention to continuity. In so many other versions, the couple is absent from the scene or just watching the action on the sidelines. This is their journey and as such, their active participation is a spot-on narrative choice. The snowmaidens skillfully handled the intricate choreography, though the arms did get a little wild from time to time. 

Lustig’s Act II was every bit the ‘Land of the Sweets’ with peppermint candies, gumdrops and bakers greeting Marie and the Nutcracker. And the collection of divertissements that make up the majority of the act brought skill and energy. While some tricky choreographic transitions and lifts proved difficult on Sunday afternoon, there were many standout performances. The Russian variation (led by Emily Kerr and Seyong Kim) was a noteworthy and winning social dance. And instead of what is often a French sequence, Lustig substituted a German variation. This Baroque-style pas de trois was absolutely charming and danced brilliantly by Chloe Slade, Colleen Soltys and Jahmal Chase. Terry, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Cottam, as the Cavalier, sailed through the grand pas de deux with grace and aplomb. Lustig’s combination of lifts, supports and balances coupled with their wonderful partnering kept this part of the ballet (which can lag) moving forward with intensity and spirit.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

San Francisco Ballet - Nutcracker

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 16th, 2015

As the house lights dimmed in the War Memorial Opera House and the orchestra hit the first notes of the overture, an annual holiday tradition was underway – San Francisco Ballet in Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker. In past reviews of this wonderful version of the Nutcracker, I’ve commented on a number of different topics: the progression of the narrative arc, titles roles, specific scenes and Act II’s solo divertissements. What struck me this year was how Tomasson’s Nutcracker really celebrates the entire San Francisco Ballet family. From the school’s students to Principal Character portrayals to corps dancers performing featured roles, Tomasson’s Nutcracker holds the ‘whole’ of this impeccable artistic institution, one brimming with creative and technical acumen.

The special added excitement that comes from opening night pulsed from beginning to end. Act I’s dancing dolls personified that energy and drive, particularly Wei Wang with sparkling parallel sissones and jumps that changed diagonal with the utmost precision. As the Nutcracker Prince, Davit Karapetyan was the picture of courtliness. His first variation defied gravity, soaring through the air with every grand jeté entralace. Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham were wintery perfection as the Queen and King of the Snow. More than any other pair I’ve seen, the two were able to make the transition into the snow scene (which can feel a little abrupt) regally seamless. And Stahl, a soloist in the company, had a fantastic turn in a role often danced by one of the Principals – her final circuit of Russian pas de chats, fouettés and turning relevés were spectacular. By the end of the snow scene, there is quite a blizzard on stage, and this year, there seemed to be some additional weather in the mix. The snow was abundantly falling from above, but it looked like there was wind blowing from the sides of the stage as well, creating blustery circles. Bravi to the entire cast for braving the icy elements!

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Act II’s Spanish pas de cinq, all corps de ballet dancers, was the best I’ve seen. This is a short variation and with five dancers, it can get a little cluttered, but this particular quintet had both technical unity and fitting style. The Arabian trio was equally impressive. Even with difficult turns that end in extended arabesque (and also have very little preparation), Gaetano Amico and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira nailed every single step, and WanTing Zhao shone with serpentine sinuousness. In the Chinese divertissement, Lonnie Weeks brought precision and lightness to the stage. The French pas followed, a lengthy variation for three women, who also have to maneuver hand-held ribbons. Corps members Rebecca Rhodes, Maggie Weirich and Ami Yuki accomplished their task handily, though spacing proved challenging from time to time. And corps dancer Esteban Hernandez led the Russian pas de trois with Francisco Sebastião and Blake Kessler, both apprentices with the company. This sequence has historically had some powerhouse dancers in its leading role (Pascal Molat, Hansuke Yamamoto and more recently Wei Wang) and these three men rose to the occasion, especially when they returned in the reprise section. Hernandez’s opening jump drew elated gasps from the audience.

The Waltzing Flowers sequence (led with beauty and grace at this performance by Sugar Plum Fairy Vanessa Zahorian) is one of the most beautiful scenes in Tomasson’s Nutcracker, full of lovely and charming choreography. While nothing went awry last night, something did seem a little off during the scene. I couldn’t quite figure out what the missing piece was.

As the Nutcracker entered its final chapter, the grand pas de deux, solos and coda claimed the stage. Karapetyan’s variation was truly gallant, in every sense of the word. And though it is still a little strange to see a grown-up Clara (Frances Chung at this performance) dance to the music that bears the Sugar Plum Fairy’s name, the piece is entrancing. Imaginative and unexpected turns and relevés abound and Chung delivered one hundred per cent.     

Monday, December 07, 2015

EmSpace Dance & detour dance

EmSpace Dance & detour dance
NOHspace, San Francisco
Pictured: Eric Garcia, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart & Kat Cole
Photo: Kegan Marling
December 6, 2015

If there was one word that could describe Sunday night, it would be unsettled. The weather in San Francisco was chilly, gloomy and uncertain. It was the perfect backdrop for the evening that would soon unfold at NOHspace in the Mission. In a shared billing, EmSpace Dance and detour dance brought two works, Whether to Weather and Beckon, respectively. Both pieces courageously abide and traverse the unsettled, uncomfortable and sometimes unnerving corners of human relationships.

EmSpace Dance’s Whether to Weather, conceived by Founder/Artistic Director Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and written by Brian Thorstenson, brings unsettled relationships to light by exploring two different journeys. In the thirty-five minute piece, the story of two male romances is told concurrently - one text-based and the other, choreographic. In the piece, the former has been ongoing for some time, while the latter is new and novel.

Whether to Weather begins, not with a duet, but with a gorgeous dance solo, performed by Kegan Marling. A combination of expansive movements - arabesque turns, long attitude poses - meet specific, placed gestures and articulate spinal undulations. Performed to Max Richter’s re-imagining of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (each aspect of the dance relationship is set to one part of this brilliant musical composition), this first dance had a sense joy, yet also a sense of searching.

Whether to Weather toggles back and forth between the two relationships, and following the opening choreographic segment, we meet the second couple. Here are two people existing together in space, but in a very disjointed fashion. Like they are speaking two different languages and neither is able (or maybe even wants to) translate the other’s words. This was apparent whether they were discussing landscaping their home or as they respond to a natural disaster. Most of their relationship is expressed through language, though in the middle of one vignette, the two sing while one plays the accordion. It was both touching and incredibly impressive.  

When the dance couple meets, they engage in a flirty and seductive exchange. But by the next time we encounter them, they have clearly moved to a different phase of their relationship. A tender and connected duet evolves – heads leaning on shoulders, arms intertwined, excited spinning lifts. And in their last pas de deux, the pair have come full circle and appropriated each other’s role from earlier: the searcher has become the seducer and the seducer, the searcher.

As Whether to Weather concludes, both relationships have fractured, though in different ways. The work was thought provoking, engaging and clever. How Stuart wove the two relationships into one work was really quite something.

The unsettled atmosphere continued in detour dance’s Beckon, choreographed by co-Artistic Directors Eric Garcia and Kat Cole, as inappropriate interactions took center stage. An ensemble dance theater work, Beckon explored the notion of ‘uninvited’ – the uninvited guest; the uninvited attention; the uninvited commentary; the uninvited response. While narratively driven, Beckon did not follow a linear story. Instead it progressed as a collection of captivating and often troubling vignettes.

Beckon begins in the pitch black, with the cast singing together, almost meditatively. But quickly that breaks into a unison animalistic movement phrase. Combative, angry, unrelenting and confrontational, it traveled straight towards the audience. The dancers did a fantastic job embodying this difficult primal vocabulary.

What struck me most about Beckon was the imagery. Whether communicated through movement, text or song, strong visceral themes penetrated every moment. Prowling quest for possession; undesired invasion of space; caged leering; glares and stares. Choreographically, flinging motions, syncopated percussive rhythms, and gestures (some like baseball signals) filled the room. And the final pas de deux between Kevin Lopez and Scott Marlowe was a tempestuous struggle, with equal parts fight and volatile passion.

But Garcia and Cole also spoke to the other end of this narrative spectrum. Beckon had moments of calm. A dancer gently placed apples in a line after they had been rolled out to her, bringing order to a chaotic situation. There were moments of camaraderie. A duet where two women gently leaned on each other, keeping a humane point of contact throughout. The entire cast offering their hands to each other; supporting each other in lifts; working together to create shapes in space. While the majority of the material in Beckon definitely (and purposefully) was unsettled, there were these beautiful flashes of respect and kindness amongst the storm.  

Sunday, December 06, 2015


Katharine Hawthorne
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Dec 5th, 2015

Katharine Hawthorne’s newest full-length contemporary dance, Mainframe, is an ensemble work. It has a cast of ten – five dancers and five old-school computers. The computers serve multiple functions throughout the piece - as seats, dance partners, props, set design elements, platforms and companions. And the sixty-five minute piece is all about the convergence of and the intersection between human behavior, machines and technology.

Before the main body of the dance began, Mainframe offered an introductory segment to set the mood. A see-through scrim was hung at the very front of the stage, with columns of light set against the back wall, and four of the five dancers present in the space. Through geometric, linear, pulsating movements and circuits, it felt like the dancers were in a real-life, full-size version of a video game, complete with players, routes and strategies.

Then the scrim dropped to reveal a single, early model computer, bathed in a spotlight and situated directly center stage. Dancer Gary Champi approached this object with equal parts curiosity and cautiousness, a narrative that would inform much of the dance that followed. In this pas de deux of discovery and greeting, he searched for signs of life and reaction in this
Pictured: Suzette Sagisi
Photo © Ben Hersh
rectangular box. And by the end of the initial interaction, we weren’t sure what he thought about this odd new entity. Was he frightened? Was he intrigued? Was he interested? As Champi pondered this addition to his environment, he was joined by the rest of the cast who resurrected the geometric, linear movements from Mainframe’s opening: shape-based poses and mechanized isolations, some almost inspired by puppetry.

Mid-way through the work, Hawthorne devised a series of gestures, each the manifestation of a command. From everyday computer functions to obvious physical instructions to high-level existential directives, it was a fantastic sequence, both conceptually and as performed by the dancers. As Mainframe moved towards its final chapter, one of the computers was taken apart. And the process of dissection revealed a prism of feeling. There was intrigue as to the internal components of the machine. There was disappointment as to what was not found. There was joy in the unexpected.

Choreographically, Mainframe had some stunning and poetic moments. Hawthorne’s work is always incredibly athletic and innovative, but Mainframe took that physicality to a new and exciting level. It was almost as if the suspension and release foundation had received an extra dose of contemporary technique. Multiple relevé phrases found the dancers balancing (at length) on one foot while the working leg shifted from position to position. Turned out grand rond de jambes soared through the space. And this cast was certainly equal to the task.

The dancers’ relationship to one another was another striking force in Mainframe. While they spent ample time in close physical proximity or sometimes even in contact, there was a purposeful distance, disengagement and disconnection. In most instances, it was the computers who were their dance partners, not each other. Seemed a befitting cultural observation – we are so often around others, yet at the same time, completely disassociated. Engrossed and enmeshed in technology rather than in human relationship.

As the lights dimmed on Mainframe, Champi and the computer danced a final duet, steeped in emotion and feeling – the curiosity and cautiousness from the beginning had given way to joyful attachment. While it seemed a hopeful note to end on, I wonder if Hawthorne was challenging the audience with this final image. Was this actually a happy ending? Or did it reveal a void and sadness; a lack of human interaction?