Monthly Archives: December 2008

Review: 2008 San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker



San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson

What more can I say about San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker without sounding like a broken record? Catching back-to-back performances last Tuesday at the San Francisco War Memorial House, I was once again swept up in the sumptuous fairytale of what I’m convinced is one of the best Nutcrackers in the world. The production bursts with sumptuous extravagance in the magnificent sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that speaks of an early 20th century nostalgia where even kids misbehaved in an orderly fashion. But San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker firmly plants itself in the present day with a contemporary edge in the crispness of the company’s dancing. Especially having viewed the PBS airing of this production mere days before I saw the performances live, I was struck how much more alive the production looked onstage than on the TV screen. The company seemed to have grown since its recording last year and gave particularly luminous performances.

The entire show seems to fly by like a dream. From the brisk lively overture conducted by Martin West, the children in the audience are enchanted by the first act with its strong narrative plot. But my personal favorite lies in the charms of the second act, where the company shines in Helgi Tomasson’s choreography that is custom made to show off the wonders of the San Francisco Ballet. I found the French section (danced by Ludmila Campos, Lily Rogers, and Jennifer Stahl) to be a choreographic high point, with a light flirtiness and contrasting deep plies on pointe to make it interesting. The famous Sugar Plum Fairy solo accompanied by the heavenly celeste (in this version, the solo in the Grand Pas de Deux) is a refreshingly original take on an over-choreographed variation that seamlessly incorporates the storyline of Clara’s joy in dancing with her Prince directly in the form of flitting, running steps across the stage in pointe. The audience-favorite Russian section danced by Benjamin Stewart, Christopher Mondoux, and Isaac Hernandez in the evening cast never fails to bring down the house with their energy and showmanship. These highlights overshadow the times when Tomasson’s choreography seems to fight the music (for instance, Clara yawns and falls asleep peacefully amidst dark, ominous music) or my annoyance at the missing gunshot in its appropriate place in the music that makes it appearance several bars later.


Frances Chung in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson

In comparing the matinee and evening casts, the evening cast was more experienced, yet the matinee cast brought to mind memorable new faces. Corps member Clara Blanco danced the Grand pas de deux with effervescence; her turns were breathtaking, as there is a nice completeness to her dancing, from her fingertips to her follow through out of each step to the next. Principal Nicolas Blanc was her warm and spirited Prince who filled his high flying jumps and extensions with a dash of (dare I say, tongue-in-cheek?) humor, especially when he acted out what happened in the battle with the mice. Rachel Viselli as the Sugar Plum Fairy displayed amazing control with her rock solid balances, yet I found her performance a tad flat, lacking in musicality and a forward-pushing energy. Newly-hired corps member Isaac Hernández was the lead in the Russian section in an eye-popping performance with unabashed bravura and drama, making a dazzling impression in his short time onstage and turning effortlessly as if he was on ice. He will definitely be one to watch this upcoming season. In the evening performance, Kristin Long made a welcoming Sugar Plum Fairy, her dancing expansive as the soloist in the Waltz of the Flowers. Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun was a sensual lead in Arabian, and Nicolas Blanc jumped to the skies in his dynamic rendition of Chinese. Maria Kochetkova reprised her role (from the PBS broadcast) in the Grand pas de deux with the joy of a girl dancing on the happiest day of her life in a thrilling demonstration of technical control and artistry, flitting on her toes across the stage as if on air. Gennadi Nedvigin was her refined and debonair partner. Brett Bauer and Elana Altman as the Snow King and Queen shared an effortless partnership that highlighted an ease to the role I hadn’t seen before. In both casts, Val Caniparoli as Uncle Drosselmeyer added humorous details to his role, such as wiping the eyes and blowing the nose of the Nutcracker after Fritz breaks it. Daniel Deivison was a delightfully bendy dancing doll, and Jessica Cohen was a youthful and vivacious Clara.


Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson

From the smallest ladybug to the most experienced dancer onstage, from the beautiful costumes to the breathtaking snowfall in the Snow Scene, every detail in San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is in its carefully constructed place. The result is a sparkling production bound to be distilled in children’s memories to inspire another generation to dream, as it did for me when I was growing up.

San Francisco Ballet


  • My review last year
  • Get the DVD that aired on PBS – narrated by Kristi Yamaguchi and chock full of information on the background, history, and inspiration for this production

Merry Christmas!


Dressed up for the holidays!

Merry Christmas everyone! I’m still working up until the very last minute until my flight leaves, but after having worked all weekend this past weekend, I finally got a break in my experiments when I caught a back to back showing of two Nutcrackers at the San Francisco Ballet yesterday. It was a magical time, and I had a blast with my friends and family. Review coming soon – in the meantime, I still have to pack and cram stuff in (I don’t know how I’m fitting all my presents in my bag). I hope everyone has the warmest of holidays filled with Nutcracker princes, spicy hot apple cider, heartwarming smiles, and lots of much-needed rest!

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet Company Dancers and PNB School students in Nutcracker. © Angela Sterling

How do you take the same story of the Nutcracker, and present it in a myriad of different ways? At the same time of the year, tons of productions are staged all across the country. Some differences are small, such as naming the lead girl Clara or Marie, while other differences are bigger, with some renditions sticking to a basic sugary plotline while others layer diverse themes from Oedipal-like tensions to a coming-of-age story. It’s mind boggling to think of a world of different interpretations that can take place from the exact same story. It was my lucky experience to be able to experience a production (and company) I’d never seen before live, when I stopped by to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of the Nutcracker during a recent visit to Seattle.

Pacific Northwest Ballet School student in Nutcracker. © Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet School student in Nutcracker. © Angela Sterling

While this production isn’t the most polished one out there, Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak’s Nutcracker  cast its magical spell over the audience wrapped in a cashmere blanket of charm and nostalgia. Like an old childhood book that someone grows up with, this production was familiar in a heart-tugging way yet haunting in its dark stories about forests and goblins. And rightly so, since children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak (of the ubiquitous children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”) did the sets and designs for this production. His sets were one of the highlights of this production, charmingly retro in its two dimensional-ness and filled with childlike wonder. The set for the Snow Scene was especially breathtaking. I thought I even glimpsed a character from his book, “Where the Wild Things Are” in the background when the ship is sailing across the sea to the magic kingdom. One of the show’s strengths is in its approachability and appeal to a wide range of audiences, including those who are new to ballet of all ages. The big pas de deux that usually closes the show got broken up and inserted in between more group dancing, to break up what is usually the part when kids get restless. The choreography by founding artistic director Kent Stowell is appropriate to the story, but occasionally strays into the arena of repetition, even from the very beginning of the ballet with the pantomime of the Princess Pirlipat story. His choreography for the kids (a big reason why kids enjoy the Nutcracker) is fun but often they look like kids acting like adults (wagging of fingers at each other, for example), versus kids acting like kids acting like adults. The storyline also takes an unconventional turn with the inclusion of a story within the story, the story of Princess Pirlipat, a princess from a dream, who gets bitten by a mouse and turns “ugly” (the nightmare of every girl, you’ve got to instill beauty ideals early in kids I suppose) but gets saved by the prince. There’s a reason why this story isn’t often included in other Nutcrackers as it feels a bit out of place and irrelevant to the rest of the story, and it’s more puzzling when it gets repeated and accompanied to the music of Mozart, a completely different style of music from the romantic time period of Tchaikovsky. Despite all this, the production still soared with the audience thrilled at being wrapped up in childhood nostalgia in a show that appealed equally to adults as well as children.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta in Nutcracker. © Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta in Nutcracker. © Angela Sterling

The Nutcracker offers Pacific Northwest Ballet an opportunity to show off its diverse array of dancers. My favorite for the night was the lead for the Flowers, soloist Lesley Rausch. Utilizing her height and long extensions to the fullest, she truly embodied the joy of dancing in her sweeping buoyant movements as she flowed effortlessly from one step to the next. Principal Kaori Nakamura danced the role of the adult Clara, with Jonathan Porretta as her Nutcracker prince. Nakamura danced with strong, clean lines and Porretta was a warmly gracious partner, but I found myself wishing that extensions were held a tad longer to express more the longing of young love and to take a bit off of the perfunctory edge. Jordan Pacitti embodied the role of Herr Drosselmeier with gusto in an especially complicated characterization of the unpredictable and eccentric uncle. As a company, the dancers seem to possess an intriguing contemporary quality, although I’d have to see more in order to make a more definitive statement.

Pacific Northwest Ballet Company Dancers and PNB School students in Nutcracker. © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet Company Dancers and PNB School students in Nutcracker. © Angela Sterling.

This Nutcracker is one that reminds me of an old childhood teddy bear, eyes still twinkling with all its huggable warmth and evocative charm. In this Nutcracker, I was reminded of my own childhood hopes and fears of growing up, my dreams and nightmares, fairytale love and harsh reality. This production doesn’t sugar coat very much, which gives weight to this production. I agree with those that say that kids are drawn to these darker elements on stage and shouldn’t necessarily be shielded from all that. And judging from the enthusiastic audience response, no one else seemed to mind it either.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker runs until December 30.

© Saturday Matinee Blog

© Saturday Matinee Blog

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker on PBS

Elizabeth Powell, Damian Smith, and the San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson 

If you can’t make it to the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House either due to distance or the recession, PBS’ Great Performances is offering a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of a live performance of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. San Francisco performed the first Nutcracker in the US, starting it as a longstanding holiday tradition in this country. Recently renovated a few years ago, Helgi Tomasson’s rendition of the Nutcracker literally bursts off the screen in its elegance and energy. I got a chance to preview the PBS version – with thoughtful details on making the production local to Bay Area audiences, the design offers a nostalgic nod to its past with the world class dancers looking fresh and modern.

In a sea of Nutcracker DVD’s out there, SF Ballet stands apart in several different ways. Only filmed last year, the newness of the production jumps off the screen in all its sumptuous detail. Also, this filmed performance is a compilation of several live performances, in contrast to other versions filmed without a live audience, including NY City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Baryshnikov/Kirkland version to name a few. On one hand, it feels like you’re sitting in the audience, with the energy that comes from a spontaneous live performance instead of the careful calculation that comes with many takes. On the other hand, it comes with a few baubles and the risks that accompany live performance. Maria Kochetkova’s fouettes in the grand pas de deux feel a little bit shaky, but not necessarily in a bad way – there’s an irreplaceable thrill in the live performance that I really enjoyed, rather than looking robotic. Speaking of Kochetkova, she dances with warm consideration infusing her performance with precise detail and the lightness of a meringue. Davit Karapetyan as her noble partner has a big, muscular, tough exterior but possesses this unexpected gentility about him. His long legs extend swiftly, but lands with the softest of landings, almost catlike. There’s something understated about his presence; he has the rare quality of being both a solid partner and an exceptional soloist. Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-François Vilanoba make the most out of a mostly thankless pas de deux filled with promenades and presentations rather than dancing; they dance with nobility and grace even in the midst of a torrential snowstorm. Another standout was Clara Blanco as the Doll in the first act; her wide-eyed face and rigid doll-like movements gave her character life and charm. The corps de ballet were particularly expressive in their upper arms in the big group numbers (Snow, Flowers). The sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are breathtaking in person, but I didn’t feel like it translated quite as well on screen. More reason to see it live, I suppose. I really liked the background and history they gave regarding the sets and design of the show, making it more San Francisco-centric and historically accurate. Kristi Yamaguchi narrates pleasantly in awkwardly worded speeches (I thought it was cute the way she pronounced “horticultural” and they made her say it twice!) and adds a personal touch as she shares with us her personal history with this production.

Be sure to catch this opportunity to see a world class company on TV! For most people such as where I am, it will air on Wednesday December 17 at 8 pm, but be sure to check your local listings. Post your comments, thoughts, reactions here, I’d love to know what people thought.


Where in the World, Part II

Maybe my clue was too hard (or no one reads this blog, both of which are equally plausible) but I’ll post easier clues here. Sorry about the lack of updates – in addition to being out of town, my laptop officially crashed, and it has taken over a week to fix and is still in the shop, which effectively limits my computer use to my time at work. This week is going to be a delightful Nutcracker overload, possibly with me seeing it a total of four times (twice on my TV screen) but I still haven’t decided yet, juggling between work and family and my theater obsession (more specifically, my SF Ballet obsession).

Don’t you hate it when life gets in the way? But it’s been a really fun month – lots to see, lots to do, lots to experience. More coming soon!

The view of the theater from the needle, review coming soon!

Lang Lang with SF Symphony Musicians

Riding high on a wave of international acclaim after the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and being chosen as one of People Magazine‘s 2008 Sexiest Men Alive, pianist Lang Lang breezed into San Francisco last week in a versatile series of performances. Ranging from a solo piano recital, to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Lang Lang ended the week with a chamber music concert with violinist Nadya Tichman and cellist Peter Wyrick. I caught his chamber music concert with San Francisco Symphony musicians on Sunday night at the Davies Symphony Hall.

Anyone who is even a little familiar with the classical music world knows fair well that despite sold out houses and household name status, Lang Lang is an easy target ridiculed by both the press and the public. With an over-the-top animated style where his hands fly a good two feet off of the piano and flourishes are common, he is admittedly really fun to watch but can catch the audience off guard as familiar piano pieces can sound unrecognizable peppered with aggressive personal stylings.  A critic from London’s Telegraph declares, “he needs a mentor to tell him to grow up and not be so silly” in an article titled, “Lang Lang: A bravura display of preening”. In a NY Times article, he is the poster child for an article titled, “When Histrionics Undermine the Music and the Pianist”. Out of the three concerts he put on (solo piano recital, concerto, or chamber music), the concerto is best suited to showcase Lang Lang’s brazen showmanship; the recital and chamber music require subtle transparency that Lang Lang isn’t well known for. But because I could only make the Sunday night concert, I was unexpectedly but pleasantly surprised when I found the chamber music setting to offset Lang Lang’s melodramatic style in an advantageous way.

Granted, Lang Lang is still most comfortable when left to his own devices and free will, but if forced to be a team player, Lang Lang can do it to an admirable degree. Tempo and volume were more controlled as he had to match the two other players, and his virtuosic technical abilities were able to shine through. Despite muddy pedaling at the beginning of the concert, at times Lang Lang seemed to fly when playing a shower of notes with clarity and lightness. As a group, Tichman, Wyrick, and Lang Lang made a unified trio because stylistically, all three are musicians that perform with stirring lyricism rather than being exact technicians. As a result, moments of true poetry emerged. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this concert was a tad under rehearsed with one too many technical fumbles and pitchy moments. Things never strayed into the precarious however and stayed solid all the way through. The concert opened with the sunny Schubert Trio No. 1 in B flat major, a world in which the music evolved seamlessly over time. The third movement Scherzo flit in and out of major and minor keys. The smokier Tchaikovsky Trio in A minor fit the character of this trio better as the players were able to let go a little and dig deeper into the drama and suspense of the music. But this freedom made Lang Lang sound like a different musician from the Schubert trio – more confident, more soloistic, and less careful. This confidence also affected the tempo of the piece, as moments in the first movement got faster and faster with the strings trying to keep up. The second movement was a theme and variations, a smorgasbord of segments strung together with breaks that gave it a disjointed yet monotonously repetitive feel without enough logic to fully engage. It still possessed the melodies that Tchaikovsky is famous for, including a moment where the piano sets the tempo with a funeral march-like strictness with the strings pulling the melody forward with heartrending emotion. The third movement ended on a typical Lang Lang way on a self indulgent note, where he drew out the quiet ending to an extreme to the point where the audience didn’t quite know when the piece was over as he dramatically held his hands over the piano for what seemed like minutes. Sounds of eyerolls echoed around the symphony hall – or maybe it was just in my own head.

The audience went crazy the entire concert, applauding after every single movement and even in between variations in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky trio. Whatever reservations I had seemed to be completely lost on the almost completely sold out house. Overall, the concert on Sunday night demonstrated the quality of professionalism of all three musicians, in spite of sufficient rehearsal time or not at the end of a busy week for Lang Lang in which he presented three different concerts in a very short period of time. Anyone who’s played in a chamber music group knows how difficult it is to be in such a transparent and collaborative environment. I still can’t help but to wonder if playing with Lang Lang is like playing with a bomb that might unpredictably go off at any minute, but the musicians kept it together and even managed to squeeze in moments of really great music. Violinist Nadya Tichman played with a lovely quiet solidarity and sensitivity. Cellist Peter Wyrick is a gem, performing with genuine heart and musicality pouring from every pore, showcasing the rich sounds of the cello to the highest degree. It was a unique setting that showcased individual talents more than I would ever see in a San Francisco Symphony concert and a great opportunity to see Lang Lang in a more collaborative and unique chamber music setting.

San Francisco Symphony

Other links:

The World’s First Online Orchestra


The YouTube Symphony Orchestra is holding open auditions! Backed by international classical music superstars, this ambitious competition is well underway. Thoughtfully set up with a novel online audition process (including PDF files to download Tan Dun’s score depending on your instrument), you upload a video of yourself playing the Tan Dun score (written specifically for this competition, preferably backed by the video of the full symphony accompaniment) and another video with the more standard audition fare. Open to amateurs and professionals, the best part is that if you win a spot, you get to play in Carnegie Hall under the baton of San Francisco Symphony’s Michael Tilson Thomas. You can also listen in on master classes given by members of the London Symphony Orchestra on how to play the Tan Dun score, and videos of Tan Dun describing his inspiration for the piece. And lots of celebrity interviews and their opinions about this novel idea – including Valery Gergiev and Lang Lang.

A coworker suggested playing each video (one of each instrument) on different computers all at the same time, to create a computer symphony made up of audition videos. That should really be the final performance. Carnegie Hall is much cooler though, of course.

What other creative events will the internet world bring? It’s fascinating how the arts are learning to incorporate the internet, and it’s the projects that embrace the open inclusive environment of the internet that seem to work the best. Although it’s still going to be difficult for amateurs, especially competing against all the professionals. For the flute part at least, the Dun score doesn’t look so bad but the second audition pieces are, especially for a flute player like me who hasn’t performed in almost ten years. It’s so tempting to audition but I will resist. :) Even if you don’t try out, you can crank up the symphony and play along to experience what it must be like to play with the London Symphony Orchestra. (Sort of.)

What’s next? The world’s first online dance company? That sounds like a project for the forward-thinking choreographer Merce Cunningham. Personally I would love to see Mark Morris choreograph for non dancers. His Snow in The Hard Nut looks like so much fun to dance.

Check out the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, here.

Tan Dun’s piece for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra