Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Oakland Ballet Company

Oakland Ballet Company
Graham Lustig’s “The Nutcracker”
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
December 21st, 2019 (matinee)

Bay Area audiences were treated to another delightful Nutcracker over the weekend as Oakland Ballet Company (OBC) brought its version, choreographed by Artistic Director Graham Lustig, to the historic Paramount Theatre. Like its neighbor across the bridge, San Francisco Ballet, this Nutcracker has deep history: OBC has been presenting the holiday tale for close to fifty years. It’s also a fairly traditional dance adaptation of Marie’s magical Christmas adventure. But what differentiates this Nutcracker and makes it so special is that it is filled with wonderfully subtle moments of connection. Choreographic gems and plot points that cleverly (and enviably) link one moment to another.

Samantha Bell and Sharon Kung
Photo John Hefti
The first of these connections happens at the very beginning of the ballet, during the famous party scene at the Stahlbaum family home on Christmas Eve. Amidst the festive whirlwind, which features elegant, sweeping pointe work for the adults, is the character of Cousin Vera (Jackie McConnell) and her suitor, The Cadet (Thomas Panto). Not present in every party scene, the inclusion of this pairing offers two points of linkage. First, it provides a hint of foreshadowing as Vera and her beau will transform into the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier in Act II. Second, it creates a direct thread to Marie, embodied by the ebullient Paunika Jones. As Vera dances her solo and partnered steps, Marie mirrors the same sequences diligently in the background, excitedly imagining her future self dancing the same variations. Fast-forward to a little later in the Act, where Lustig injected a compelling pas de deux for the Nutcracker (Skylar Burson) and Uncle Drosselmeyer (Vincent Chavez), establishing another integral connection between two important roles in the ballet, one that is rarely mined at all. That spirit of continuity continued as we moved to the snow scene. In this Nutcracker, Marie and her Prince are not bystanders in the wintry forest; instead they participate fully along with a cast of Snowmaidens and Snowballs. It makes far more sense story-wise as well as adding much choreographic beauty and variation to the tableau. Having said that, the Snowmaidens’ pointe shoes were too loud on Saturday afternoon, which unfortunately, did distract and detract from their performance. In addition, unison seemed to be a challenge. Super high extensions are impressive, no question, but achieving them can also compromise togetherness and cohesiveness of the entire group. In situations like Nutcracker’s snow (and its waltz of the flowers), that also has to be a consideration.

Charm was the order of the day as Act II’s series of dances unfolded. While there was some occasional choreographic busyness, the stage was awash with sparkle and enthusiasm. In Lustig’s Nutcracker, the Chinese divertissement is a nightingale, a refreshing approach to a difficult and controversial moment in the ballet. And as that nightingale, Sharon Kung was an absolute wonder – her consecutive pirouettes from fifth were quite something. Instead of the lengthy French variation, Lustig substitutes a courtly Baroque-inspired German quartet, which, as interpreted by Karina Eimon, Adele Hall, Brandon Perez and Yanis Eric Pikieris, had gorgeous intricacy and striking epaulement to spare. Again, Marie and the Nutcracker collaborated with the corps in this Act as well, resulting in a lovely Waltz of the Flowers. And McConnell and Panto were terrific in the grand pas de deux. Not only did they command the space technically, they kept things moving along at a great pace. The Nutcracker’s last major duet can tend to lag, but not in their more than capable hands.

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