Saturday, November 21, 2020

"The Nutcracker Suite"

Jackie McConnell, Raymond Tilton and Olivia Powell in
Julia Adam's The Nutcracker Suite
Photo: Rosselyn Ramirez

Diablo Ballet
The Nutcracker Suite
Streamed Nov. 13th-15th, 2020

The first Nutcracker experience of any year is special. The music, the characters, the story, the snow – it signals that the holiday season is nearing. This year is understandably different. In the San Francisco/Bay Area (and I imagine most places), in person, theater productions are not a possibility. So, companies are looking to other options to share the classic story ballet with audiences, like broadcasting previous performances. Diablo Ballet, under the Artistic Direction of Lauren Jonas, took a different approach. They opted to create a charming dance film, directed by Walter Yamazaki and Luke H. Sauer, of Julia Adam’s 2019 The Nutcracker Suite.

This fresh take on the festive tale is just delightful, adapting the typical full-length work into a single Act, complete with ample Bay Area flair. Viewers meet the Diablo Family and their daughter Clara, as they check into The Fairmont Hotel for a grand holiday treat. Clara and the Bellhop are instantly smitten with each other (he transforms into the Nutcracker later). And orchestrating all the story’s magical elements is the hotel manager or as the program names him, the concierge. 

Because The Nutcracker Suite is a shorter adaptation of the original, not all the characters nor all the various dance episodes, are present. But there are plenty of favorites to enchant: the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Cavalier, the Snow Queen, the Mouse King and of course, Clara and her Nutcracker. And the dance sequences were simply lovely. A jazzy, retro interlude (the only music used from outside the Tchaikovsky score) found the Diablo family swirling, sweeping and waltzing about the room. As partners shifted and changed, Olivia Powell as Clara and Roberto Vega-Ortiz as the Bellhop found themselves on a romantic whirlwind journey though time and space. Jackie McConnell and Raymond Tilton elegantly embodied the Sugar Plum and Cavalier, tackling the spin-packed partnering with ease and confidence. A spirited match unfurled between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, while the Snow Queen’s choreography had a hearty dose of regality and grandeur. And the pas de deux between Clara and the Nutcracker was all about joy and freedom. Diablo Ballet’s choice to create the film was spot on. It felt like you were watching a live show and participating in that distinct performer/viewer exchange. As we have all been missing that experience this year, The Nutcracker Suite was a gift.

The only section of the work that didn’t totally track for me was the Mirliton, or French, as it’s referred to in some versions. Here it was envisioned as a quartet, and the actual dancing was beautiful from all four women – it was more the concept that was somewhat confusing. For this pas de quatre, two of the dancers were costumed in pastel colors (which tends to be typical for this chapter), and the other two were in contrasting red and black. It seemed like we were seeing two Mirliton dancers and two dancers from the Spanish Chocolate divertissement. Maybe that wasn’t the intention, but that’s how it read. Not only was the latter’s music not part of the scene, the choreography also didn’t reflect any of the steps or style that is often found in the Spanish variation. So it did feel a bit curious why this section of the ballet was designed the way it was. 

Diablo Ballet will be re-airing The Nutcracker Suite from December 21st-23rd, just in time for Christmas!

Friday, November 06, 2020

"Purple Skin"

Kelsey McFalls and Joseph A. Hernandez in
Purple Skin
Photo: Dean Berdusis

Amy Seiwert's Imagery
SKETCH Films: Red Thread
October 1st-December 31st

In 2020, the word ‘pandemic’ has become part of daily vocabulary – on the news, at the grocery store, in everyday interactions. Stephanie Martinez’s Purple Skin reminds viewers that forty years ago, there was another destructive, deadly pandemic, one that was met with widespread ignorance, hatred, blame and stigma - the early days of the HIV/AIDS plague, which decimated the gay community and stole a generation of young men. But in the face of all the fear and intolerance, there were also those who tirelessly helped and comforted the sick and the dying, and this five-minute short, directed by Dean Berdusis and choreographed by Martinez, honors one of those amazing souls, Chicago-based activist Lori Cannon. 

As narration by Cannon haunts the air, Purple Skin, which presumably references Kaposi’s Sarcoma, begins as a solo for Joseph A. Hernandez on a beach. Tactile meets despair as veins are systematically traced and skin is investigated for any sign of abnormality. As the scene shifts from outdoors to indoors, one is struck by the sense of isolation and loneness. Hernandez mournfully stares out a window and his palms push the space away in hopes of an open door. Then, he trudges through sand, desperately trying to put one foot in front of the other, until eventually dropping to one knee, unable to persist. Scoring Martinez’s potent choreography was a pulsing, somber composition by Kishi Bashi and Emily Hope Price. The music’s constant propulsion, never reaching a cadence point, felt particularly affecting, and added an extra layer and texture to the narrative frame. 

Kelsey McFalls enters the space and Purple Skin grows into an emotional duet between her and Hernandez. The pair lay hands lovingly on each other, offering a genuine, authentic embrace, when so many were afraid of touch. Partnering sequences are infused with a mutual give and take, each of the dancers needing the other in order to create shapes, keep balance and extend limbs. And the unfailing support was so alive in the choreography. As the film neared its conclusion, Hernandez had more moments of contracting and crumbling to the earth. But he never completely reached the ground; McFalls was there to catch him.

The final film in the SKETCH Films: Red Thread series will debut in early 2021.