Monthly Archives: December 2009

Review: 2009 San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker

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

Last Thursday, I properly kicked off the Christmas season at the War Memorial Opera House with San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. It’s been a family tradition ever since I was a little girl, and this is a production is one worthy of a tradition that’s passed down from generation to generation. Choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, this production showcases the best of childhood dreams – the warmth of a doting uncle, the thrill of adventure, the dreams of love, the wonder of a child, and the charm of the wonders of the world. No matter how many times I’ve seen Tomasson’s glittering production, I’m impressed by how much this production still amazes. The growing tree is just as impressive year after year, and the details in this production are just as charming, especially in the delightful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that look like fancy confections. Everything about this ballet is like a glittering Christmas present that you’ve always wanted, tied with a Tiffany bow.

Set in early twentieth-century San Francisco, the local touches of San Francisco houses and the arboretum in Golden Gate Park in the grandiose sets by Michael Yeargan are magnificent. The first act is a rich fairytale as sumptuous as a holiday feast, inviting in its plotline, dramatic elements and dancing children. The second act is filled with a variety of sparkling vignettes with moments for the dancing to shine. The dances feature a variety of cultural delights, from the Chinese dragon in the Chinese Tea (danced with high-flying liveliness by James Sofranko) to the gasp-inducing entrance of the Russian Trepak bursting forth from Faberge eggs led by Hansuke Yamamoto with genial bravado. Lily Roger was a particular highlight in the Arabian, unfolding her long limbs with hypnotic sensuality. Moments of humor made unexpected but welcome appearances – the campy death of the Mouse King is particularly satisfying, and the quirky yet surprisingly agile circus bear that dances with Madame Du Cirque’s children never fails to make me laugh.

Sofiane Sylve in Tomasson's Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve and guest artist Casey Herd was the reigning king and queen at last Thursday night’s performance, dancing the leads in the final Grand pas de deux. They lit up the stage with a regal presence, both embodying stunning glamor. Professionalism artfully concealed balance checks in the difficult adagio of the pas de deux, making it hardly noticeable to most of the audience. Other signs of under-rehearsal showed occasionally, especially in the coordination of the orchestra (under the baton of Donato Cabrera) with the Grand pas de deux and the Waltz of the Flowers with Maria Kochetkova as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Indecisive of its ever-changing tempo, the orchestra was a precarious element in an otherwise airy and expansive performance by Kochetkova, her arms generous and light. It was the lethal combination of a slow, stilting tempo and a choreography that didn’t offer much for the soloists to do, which led to moments of awkward stillness rather than flowing momentum and the freedom to fly. I couldn’t help but to wish that there was more for these gorgeous dancers to do. Sylve’s musicality had no place to shine without the support of the orchestra and static choreography. Despite this, the dancers still left a crystal clear impression of majesty and class. Herd was the hunky prince of everyone’s dreams, who matched Sylve’s glamour with his tall lines and dramatic stage presence. His dancing was almost operatic, his arms moving in dramatic strokes and his leaps were breathtaking. Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro danced with cool ease and splendor amidst the snowstorm as the Snow Queen and King, and Elise Gillum completed the cast as a plucky and spirited young Clara.

San Francisco Ballet’s production is one that encapsulates the sweet warmth of tightly-held childhood dreams, as well as the spectacle and wonder of a world that is much bigger than our hopes and fantasies. And what a spectacle it is.

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker continues until December 27th. Click here for more information. Also, be sure to catch the PBS recording of a live performance of this production.

Frances Chung promoted to principal dancer at SF Ballet

Frances Chung in Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Frances Chung in Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Congratulations to Frances Chung for her promotion to principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet! What a nice surprise – it’s rare for a dancer promotion to be announced in the middle of the year, but she certainly deserves it. She made a splash with opening up last year’s opening night gala with a sassy rendition of Balanchine’s Tarantella, and has shown her versatility and fluidity in exploring modern ballet as well, with her performance in Possohkov’s Fusion being a particular highlight for me. It’s also a rare accomplishment for a dancer to break into the principal ranks from starting out in the corps – the most common route seems to be hiring superstars from the outside to join the company as principals – but it’s been an exciting journey that she has shared with audiences over the years as she has grown in her artistic abilities, visibly and consistently. I look forward to seeing her perform this year, hopefully with a solo in this year’s opening night gala, which will be on January 20 with the San Francisco Ballet.

Official press release:

“San Francisco Ballet announced today the promotion of Frances Chung from the rank of soloist to principal dancer, effective immediately.

Born in Vancouver, Chung trained at the Goh Ballet Academy before joining the Company in 2001. She was promoted to soloist in 2005 and has danced a diverse range of roles including the Sugar Plum Fairy, Grand Pas de Deux Ballerina, and Snow Queen in Tomasson’s Nutcracker; the Enchanted Princess in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty; Neapolitan, Russian Princess, and pas de trois in Tomasson’s Swan Lake; and the Queen of the Dryads in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote. Her repertory also includes lead roles in Balanchine’s Symphony in C, Divertimento No. 15, and “Emeralds”; Bintley’s The Dance House; Elo’s Double Evil; Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated; Lubovitch’s “…smile with my heart” and Elemental Brubeck; Makarova’s Paquita; Possokhov’s Fusion; and Welch’s Naked. Among other honors, Chung was a finalist and prize winner at the Prix de Lausanne in 2000 and received the top honor of a silver medal at the Adeline Genée Awards in London that same year.”

Edited to add: From a previous review of mine about her performance in Possohkov’s Fusion: “Soloist Frances Chung burst forth with an expansiveness and a sostenuto in her phrasing in Possohkov’s Fusion that was dazzling. There was life pulsing through her very limbs. I’ve always seen her as a wholesome dancer who fully embodies sunny exuberance, and it’s been fun to watch her grow into something freer and deeper, with increasing confidence. She’s also had a very good year starting with the lead in Balanchine’s Tarantella at the opening night gala. But for the first time, I saw flashes of a superstar who could hold her own in SF Ballet’s star-studded roster of female principals.” And yes, I’m totally going to take credit for calling it in the first place. You’re welcome, Frances. ;)

Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Aurélia’s Oratorio

Photographer: Richard Haughton

Photographer: Richard Haughton

Despite being sparsely populated, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Aurélia’s Oratorio invites the audience into its world that is brimming with imagination and surprise. With the opening scene of body parts poking in and out of the drawers of a cabinet getting dressed while eating some cake and lighting a candle, the show unfolds in a series of vignettes that finds comedy in the unexpected. A kite hugs the ground while a woman flies at the end of the kite string. A woman hangs her laundry to dry and promptly waters it with a watering can. A marionette show features an animated human face on its stage facing a wooden puppet audience including the guy sleeping in the back row. These images are brief, ephemeral, nonsensical – insert obvious metaphor to life here. With the expected being flipped on its head, the conventional becomes strikingly unconventional, peculiar yet familiar. Illusions pervade a dream world that make the unbelievable, believable. More than being illusions where we’re wowed, illusions become something we cling to, to make the story fit, even if we see how the magic is being done. A man puts red heeled shoes on his hands and becomes the bottom half of a dancing couple. Even though we clearly see him, the audience is invited to suspend disbelief and even be amazed as the couple glides across the stage in a seductive dance. No one is tricked to believe that this is really the bottom half of two people, but we’re invited to participate in the imaginative circus.

Photographer: Richard Haughton

Photographer: Richard Haughton

This is a show that invites the audience to play, to imagine, and even be challenged in Aurelia’s witty dream world that is not without a touch of darkness. Aurélia Thierrée is the show’s quirky star, navigating through each scene with wide-eyed curiosity and aplomb. Her background in circus performance is evident, yet she disarms with the charm of a little girl performing a homespun magic show in her grandmother’s attic. Jamie Martinez is Thierrée’s delightful partner, who constantly searches for Aurélia throughout the show. The sense of searching is a common thread amongst many of the disconnected vignettes. As the show ends with Aurelia looking around in awe as a toy train chugs through a tunnel in her torso, the incessant search ends with the overwhelming sense of wonder.

Aurélia’s Oratorio runs at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 24. Click here for more info.

Guest artist for the SF Ballet Nutcracker season

Vadim Solomakha (left) and Yuan Yuan Tan performing the “Black Swan” pas de deux from Swan Lake at the San Francisco Ballet, 1998. George Nikitin/AP

Vadim Solomakha (left) and Yuan Yuan Tan performing the “Black Swan” pas de deux from Swan Lake at the San Francisco Ballet, 1998. George Nikitin/AP

Happy Friday! Have you picked your dream Nutcracker cast yet? SF Ballet’s Nutcracker opens on Tuesday, December 8.

Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know, but there was an unfamiliar name on the casting site. After some sleuthing, I found out more about this mystery name (footnote credit to the SF Ballet PR department – thanks!). Vadim Solomakha is a guest artist for SF Ballet during the Nutcracker season, and was previously a principal with SF Ballet who has remained in close contact with the company during his time away. (Doesn’t he look a little like Baryshnikov?) Here’s another photo of him with Sarah van Patten in a Voice of Dance article.

Which cast

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would you like to see? If you could create your own dream cast, who would be in it? I’m having the hardest time picking which cast to see.