An interview with flute player Annie Wu

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObUREzucuW8&feature=share&list=PL4D7A7D2415438E07

The Mondavi Center graciously invited me to watch their dress rehearsal for their show, NPR’s “From the Top“, which is an NPR

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radio show hosted by Christopher O’Riley that features young musicians. In addition, I got to interview one of the performers, a rising young star flute player Annie Wu, who is as adorable in person as she is in the video. Widely known as the “beatbox flute player”, I saw this viral video way before I knew she was coming to the Mondavi Center. She is also more prestigiously known as the 2011 high school soloist winner of the National Flute Association. My conversation with her really reminded me of my old high school flute days, and it was definitely a trip back to memory lane for me. Below is a brief interview we conducted prior to her dress rehearsal (edited slightly for content.)

When did you start playing the flute?

I started when I was 8, and I’m 16 now, so I’ve been playing flute for eight years now. I started playing piano when I was five, and I really liked it. But my older sister picked another instrument to play when she was 9 – she picked cello. And I wanted to pick a new instrument too, and I wanted to pick something different from my sister. I had a picture dictionary with an instrument page, I ended up picking the flute from the dictionary randomly. And I’m glad I did!

Tell me about the Three Beats for the Beatbox Flute video.

The piece was the commissioned piece for the National Flute Association competition. When I got it in the mail, I was really surprised. Greg Pattillo [the composer] had been there

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at the NFA the year before, and I saw him perform there. The program was really good and really funny, for instance he performed the Peter and the Wolf with beatboxing and stuff. It was really interesting. I never thought about doing beatboxing for myself, but when I got the music for the commissioned piece for NFA, he sent us videos of him playing the piece. So there were no instructions, but he just played it, and that was our instruction, to watch him play it. When I first saw the video, it was really intimidating because when you don’t have the music in front of you and you’ve never done anything like that before – I was pretty scared. Working on it was pretty crazy because you have to learn everything by yourself, and I only had two months. But it was a great experience in the end because it’s such a different aspect of music, and I think that’s the whole point of the commissioned piece.

How did you learn to beatbox?

I learned from youtube videos and just trying it myself. At first, it was really discouraging because if you don’t get it at first, you feel like you don’t have enough time. What I did was basically search a bunch of youtube videos and looked at tutorials online. As a flute player, I’m comfortable with anything classical, but this was definitely a new experience for me. Usually I listen to classical music, but in preparing for this piece, I tried to

listen to more music with heavier beats.

Whose idea was the costume?

Before the NFA competition, I wanted to have a recital for my family and community to prepare, so I can play through the whole program and get a feel for it. I held my own recital at a church near my house, and I played through the whole NFA program. I wanted to do something neat for the Three Beats piece, and my friends were there, and I wanted to break the ice a little bit. It’s not something that you’re expecting after Dutilleux! And so I just came out with sunglasses and a hat and just had fun with it.

Are you surprised by the attention that this video has gotten?

Yes! It’s been amazing, and I think it’s cool how people focus on the beatbox aspect of the piece. And now I’m

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really glad that it’s a piece that I’ll always have in my repertoire. The beatbox video has also brought back a lot of opportunities for performing – I got to play in Las Vegas, for instance.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I’m a junior in high school, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a hard question to answer, but so far, I really do want to do music. But at this point I’m not sure if I want to solely do music at a conservatory or a dual program or something at a university. I’m trying to keep all my options open, but at this point, I really want to do music.

Who are the flute players you admire?

First, it’s my teacher Isabelle Chapuis who’s been my biggest inspiration for the past two years that I’ve been with her. I also really like Tim Day with the San Francisco Symphony; since I’m in the youth orchestra, we get to watch a lot of the SF Symphony concerts. And I also like Robert Stallman, and Emmanuel Pahud. This summer, we went on tour with my orchestra and we played in Berlin, and I got to sit in his seat! That was really exciting.

Are you excited about performing in NPR’s “From The Top”?

Yes, I’m very excited! It’s really exciting to meet the other performers and to work with Christopher O’Riley. I listen to the show  and we’ll listen to it when we’re in the car. I’m playing Copeland, and then I’m ending with a part of the Three Beats piece.

Many thanks for the Mondavi Center and for Annie Wu for this interview. Best of luck to you, Annie! We’ll be watching out for you.

NPR’s “From the Top” will be taped live tomorrow night on October 25 at the Mondavi Center, and will air on NPR sometime in the near future.

Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Review: 2012 Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake

Photo courtesy of Gene Schiavone, used with permission.


It was such a treat when the Mariinsky Ballet breezed through northern California at Berkeley’s Cal Performances a few weeks ago. There were many pleasures to be had in their brief stay, and adjectives such as “traditional” and “old world”

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come to mind with the feeling that perhaps this is a little closer to what the original Swan Lake was intended to be like. But who knows, right? More than that, this production made me realize how “stylized” my ballet-watching eyes were, and how it had been shaped by the flashy (perhaps Balanchinean?) styles of American dance companies in modern ballet companies today.

One big difference – American dance companies appear to favor soloists over the corps. Say what you will about possible political influences of American individualism and freedom vs. Russian communism, but there is more flash and individuality in the dancers I’m used to seeing on the North American stage, with big personalities. In the Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake, the corps were impeccable and beautiful, the heart of the show. They didn’t dance to announce, “see, we can dance together”, but the corps breathed together in a collective and powerful tour de force. The corps dancing was more instinctive, rather than intentional, with incredible awareness of the placement of the other dancers. The effect was in short, breathtaking.

On the flip side however, there were a few characters who could use a bigger personality. The role of the jester was rather lackluster, without humor or joyful buoyancy, appearing to merely perform the steps. I could think of more than a few dancers who could have danced that role better for laughs and in general be more “jester-like”.

Ekaterina Kondaurova. Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.

Ekaterina Kondaurova. Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.


Not to say that there weren’t amazing soloists. Ekaterina Kondaurova showed us how much fun it is to be Odile, with a look that could kill and a fierce sexuality. She tore up the stage as Odile, and it was obvious that she loving every minute of it. Her Odette was characterized by sensual

back bends that arched forever, a strong portrayal filled more with tragedy rather than fragility. She imbued cool elegance and glamour in her long extensions, but I couldn’t help but to feel that there was a detached cold quality to her dancing particularly in her Odette. Systematic yet ultimately still it was lovely – it was a quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She was partnered by Danila Koruntsev, who danced the role of Prince Siegfried. He was a deft partner, but unfortunately this role is not a good showcase of his skills as a soloist, but he performed ably and nobly. Another standout dancer was Xander Parish in the male lead in the peasant trio, looking anything but peasant-like. His long extensions were noble and graceful, with a regal elegance that really stood out.

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He is definitely a dancer to watch, with an arresting stage presence and perfect body proportions for ballet.

Xander Parish. Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.

Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.


Another huge asset to this production was the Mariinsky Orchestra. Not only is live music becoming more rare these days, but the emotive power of this famous orchestra surged and propelled the story in its wake. Unfortunately the music surged towards the tragic ending, but the Mariinsky chose a happy ending where Von Rothbart is killed in a semi-ridiculous and half hearted dance-fight and Prince Siegfried and Odette are united in love forever. The most discordant part about this happy ending was the music sustained tragedy in gorgeous phrases, but a short and quickened happy ending was an unexpected twist that I hadn’t been expecting.

Overall, it was a glimpse of old world charm on a classic, Swan Lake. This production is the reason why this production still stands today, and the Mariinsky Ballet breathed life into this production with an emphasis on all the right things. We can quibble about details, but most likely this is secondary to my taste – I could not get used to the bows after every movement of the pas de deux, and I think my jaw dropped when the music actually stopped and Kondaurova took a bow after her fouettes in the Odile variation – but this really is the reason why this ballet has stayed so long in our repertoire as well as our hearts.

Many thanks to Gene Schiavone for letting me use his gorgeous photos. Check out his Facebook page for many more photos of this production as well as others.

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s performance at Stern Grove

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Scotch Symphony. © Erik Tomasson

The long-awaited performance of San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove happened last week. To be fair, this program is always difficult to review in the strict “objective” sense, as it is a rare summer performance for the ballet to its home town, and the surroundings are so gorgeous. For me, it also happened to fall on the weekend after a particularly grueling month on the pediatrics ward, and the emotional and physical toll of taking care of sick kids in the wards really got me and I was ready for a break. So in all, it was a lovely weekend in the gorgeous setting of Stern Grove, and what could go wrong when viewing my favorite company perform in such lush surroundings?

Let’s talk about the setting. It is set in the lush and green Stern Grove on an outdoor stage with a simple wood backdrop. The orchestra is placed in front, and both dancers and musicians are often subject to the ubiquitous fog and humidity that the area is known for. This year however, the fog wasn’t too bad although it was still pretty chilly. This concert is free, as are all the programs at Stern Grove, and this year, the audience numbered to over 10,000 people in one place. The crowd is unavadoidable, and yet pivotal to the whole Stern Grove experience. It is because of this crowd and the vast space that people are in, that makes some programs work and others don’t. Pieces that have worked in the past include Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet, usually big rousing pieces with

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lots of dancers that can grab your attention, or pieces like Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux, where the emotive power of the piece extends to the very last row of audience members sitting amongst the trees on the hillside. Â This year, the program closed with Wheeldon’s Number Nine, which worked very well for this setting. The high energy whirlwind of bright neon colors popped off the stage, and it was also a great opportunity to see some of SF Ballet principals on stage, for most of the audience probably for the very first time.

Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Wheeldon's Number Nine. © Erik Tomasson

My favorite piece for the afternoon was Hans van Manen’s Solo. It features three men performing solos, one after the other, in a sort of monologue soliloquies. Colored by modern touches such as side to side head jerks and speaking in the modern ballet vocabulary, it was a lovely showcase of three very different men, featuring their three very different personalities. Hansuke Yamamoto’s quirky grace, James Sofranko’s youthful fire, and Gennadi Nedvigin’s easy charm.

Hansuke Yamamoto in van Manen's Solo. © Erik Tomasson

This program also featured their own corps member Myles Thatcher’s original choreography, featuring SF Ballet’s school trainees and company apprentices. It was a very modern work based on work from Dream House and Ethel, filled with sharp geometry and pliable torsoes. I think it’s the challenge of every young choreographer to find a distinct voice of their own, particularly in dancer choreographers who have been exposed to so many of the great modern choreographers – Balanchine, Wheeldon, McGregor, and even Possohkov. Thatcher isn’t quite there in terms of finding his own, yet clearly still very talented with an eye for lines and angles and also knowing the strengths of his very young dancers and capitalizing on their youth and flexible backs. It will be exciting to see where his future will take him.

SF Ballet Appretices Emma Rubinowitz and Alexander Reneff-Olson in Thatcher's Spinae.© Erik Tomasson

The program also featured Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, which was my first viewing of this piece. It comes off as a storybook ballet, with a vague storyline, and I’m reminded of Balanchine’s famous quote that his ballets are “storyless” (he insists that his ballets are “very concrete, though ‘storyless’”). However, it is this ballet and the ending of Serenade which make it difficult to believe his words. The flavor of the ballet is Scottish, with men in kilts and regional headress. A woman with red shoes

dances a jaunty dance (Nicole Ciapponi), encouraging everyone else to dance around her. The choreography is spirited, set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Â The central portion of the ballet features a duet between Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan; it’s unclear

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if she is a dream, a wili or a sylph maybe? But she clearly enjoys to run away from him at the end of their duets, leaving him alone, and a group of men who bar him from following her. The story doesn’t really make sense, but the highlight for me was Tan’s dancing. She was luminous, with a softness in her port de bras that was really lovely here, with her usual fluidity and remarkable control. It fit her part of the elusive but quintessential love interest here.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine's Scotch Symphony. © Erik Tomasson

In all, it was a really nice afternoon in Stern Grove. When else could you sip beer while watching one

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of the best companies in the world?

For more of Stern Grove’s performances this year, click here for their website.

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s Don Quixote

Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s vibrant production of Don Quixote has many delights, and this full-length production closes the season with a reminder of what we will dearly miss until the 2013 season. Two seemingly very different elements of this production – slapstick humor and high-flying virtuosity – are blended together seamlessly in this wonderful production. It is to the audience’s delight that SF Ballet places equal emphasis on both elements, and the result is just so much fun. Humor is difficult to do well, particularly in ballet, but the company pulled it off with perfect comedic timing and creativity. The colorful costumes and beautiful sets by Martin Pakledinaz pop off the stage and frames the spirited dancing within this production, and brings the familiar Cervantes novel to life. I saw the Sunday matinee performance on April 29, 2012.

Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

One of the highlights of this performance was Frances Chung’s debut performance in the role of Kitri. In a word, her debut was astounding. Chung’s Kitri had a mischievous sense of humor and an unquenchable spontaneity. She exuded a cool confidence and appeared very well prepared to perform this role. She embodied clean lines in her poses and well-articulated feet; however, more than any technical details, Chung still maintains a quality that made her unique even as a dancer in the corps. From dancing Lubovitch to Wheeldon to classics such as Don Q, she always looks like she is having a great time. How many times have we as audience members seen dancers “check out”, with the equivalent

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of yawning or sighing on stage, or look as if they are nursing an injury, or look like they can’t wait to go home? (Yes, audiences can tell!) Years of dancing hasn’t taken away this quality from Chung, and it’s so thrilling and refreshing to watch. When dancing allegro, she really goes for it, with every molecule of her being. Her adagio is quiet and still as she takes her time to stretch her legs and arms with all the time in the world. Her pas de deux with Vitor Luiz as Basilio in Act 2 flowed effortlessly like a story unfolding, a story of falling in love, with a lovely cinematic quality to it.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

In fact, as a couple, Chung and Luiz were successfully more about heart than head in this performance. Technical details wavered a bit, with a wobble here, a failed attempt at a balance there, and a fall onto outstretched hands after a particularly forceful turning jump. However, these details were rare,

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and it was their spirit that soared; both Chung and Luiz went for it, and everyone was rooting for them. Give me that kind of gumption over textbook poses anyday.

And the comedy! Garen Scribner’s Gamache was an absolute scene-stealer every second he was onstage, even when he was sitting on the sides, fanning himself. James Sofranko’s Sancho Panza was earnest and energetic, bouncing off of Luke Willis’ regal yet absurd Don Quixote.

Vanessa Zahorian and Joan Boada in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

In spite of the comedy, the virtuosity in this ballet makes this ballet a classic, and this production showcases the strengths of the company beautifully. Chung flew through her fouettes and ended with a clean double, and Vitor Luiz drew gasps from the audience with his turning jumps that whips his legs around in the air, defying gravity. Pierre-Francois Vilanoba as the bad-ass matador and Elana Altman as his dramatic partner, Mercedes, mesmerized with their sensual power and intensity. The female corps looked pristine in the airy Dream scene, with soloists Sasha DeSola sailing through with a bright innocence, and Koto Ishihara, all leggy extensions, expertly covered up a wobbly

ending to her bird-like solo with a charming flurry of smiles. Pascal Molat and Courtney Elizabeth also added an element of passion as leaders of the gypsy camp, Molat with power and Elizabeth with melodrama.

Having never seen this ballet in its full-length version before, I really didn’t know what to expect. I know that full-length classics can

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have its slow moments; however, this production surprised and delighted. The virtuosity is thrilling and definitely worth seeing more than one cast, and the comedy is entertaining. It was a really fun way to end the 2012 season.

San Francisco Ballet’s website

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5

Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Robbins' Glass Pieces. © Erik Tomasson

I may be late to the Robbins’ bandwagon, but previously I had always considered Robbins in the context of a Balanchine-centered world. However the more that I see his choreography, the more I am impressed with his ingenuity. In San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5 of contemporary ballets, Robbin’s Glass Pieces was the shining pinnacle in an evening of contemporary ballet pieces. I attended Sunday’s performance on April 1, 2012. In this piece set to the hypnotic music  by Philip Glass, Robbins exemplifies musicality in a unique way. In the background of shimmering chaos, Robbins adds phrases and organizes the music with movement, with everyone walking on stage turning suddenly and changing directions, choreographically marking out measures and bars where none is heard. His musicality is subtle, not bold and flashy like Balanchine can be sometimes, but his is a more gentle musicality that imbues and even adds to the music. His musical ear transcends what we actually hear, but he gently points out the pauses and phrasing in Glass’ music that is not so obvious.

The famous first scene “Rubric” is breathtaking both in its mundane quality and simplicity. A large company of people walk across the stage, each with a different direction and intent, yet they all appear the same. Couples dance in and amongst the crowd, but in fleeting and shifting moments. Interactions are brief (perhaps meaningful?). Who are these people, and what are their relationships? The answer is unclear as they disappear into the crowds.

The second movement “Facades” features a corps de ballet with a fascinating yet repetitive linear movement motif that is repeated throughout the entire movement in the background. Meanwhile, a couple dance in the foreground, oblivious to their surroundings, in suspended and slow partnered dance. Victoria Ananyan and Ruben Martin Cintas inhabited these roles with long phrases, but despite Ananyan’s perfectly proportioned legs, she never quite appeared completely comfortable with a stiff upper body. The piece ended with a rousing movement “Akhnaten” driven by tribal beats and a driving momentum for a large group of dancers, colored by athleticism. The dancing was gorgeous, and the piece

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San Francisco Ballet in in Robbins' Glass Pieces. © Erik Tomasson

The program also included a world premiere by Edward Liang called Symphonic Dances. This was my first viewing of Liang’s choreography, and I could see glimpses of why his reputation as a choreographer is so stellar. He has an uncanny sense of ensemble patterns that captures the viewer’s interest. His use of space is great, as he places dancers from the highest lifts and also uses the floor as a a medium as well, giving his work a sense of broad and grandiose strokes. Liang’s musicality shines through set against the music of Rachmaninov; Frances Chung and Jaime Garcia Castilla’s duet has a quiet transparency set amongst the drama of the music. And the music! Romantic and opulent, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is packed with instruments not always heard at the ballet, including a seductive saxophone and a percussive piano. An especially strong male ensemble including Hansuke Yamamoto with firecracker reflexes and dancing in a refreshingly large space. Despite all these great qualities, the bottom line for me is that this piece didn’t keep my attention, and sections appeared overworked and felt like it could have said the same thing in a shorter period of time. There was enough there however, that made me curious to see more of Liang’s choreography.

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang's Symphonic Dances. © Erik Tomasson

The program also included Tomasson’s The Fifth Season. The music by Karl Jenkins was especially quirky and interesting, although the pieces included didn’t appear cohesive as a whole. But sculptural in nature, Tomasson does what he does best, which is to showcase his gorgeous dancers in the best way possible. Lighting by Michael Mazzola highlighted the atmosphere in stark and dramatic ways. Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets showed us a flirtier side to their dancing, and Sarah Van Patten and Pierre Francois Vilanoba danced with a free flying spirit. This piece especially featured a fresh corps with lots of new faces who were especially bright and crisp, capturing the spirit and style of the ballet with confidence.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson's The Fifth Season. © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's The Fifth Season. © Erik Tomasson

SF Ballet’s Program 7 continues with an all-Balanchine program on April 12-18. Click here for more information.

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2

McGregor’s Chroma
Morris’ world premiere Beaux
Wheeldon’s Number Nine©

Yuan Yuan Tan and Taras Domitro in McGregor's Chroma. © Erik Tomasson

Program 2 burst onto the War Memorial Opera House stage with a repertory program of contemporary ballets from three very prominent modern choreographers. It was a great study of three very different styles, vaguely within the same genre. I got to watch this program for the matinee show on Sunday February 19.

The program opened with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, a rollercoaster of angular twists and turns around every unexpected corner. With this piece, we as an audience get to experience the joys of having a modern dance choreographer bring his primary expertise to the world of ballet. The stage is set with a bright white background by Jack Pawson lit with different shades of white (with lighting design by Lucy Carter and costumes by Moritz Junge). Within this setting, McGregor places his dancers as superhuman athletes in an alien world. His choreography encompasses a wide range of movements, focusing on the extremes of physicality, from unending fast solos to slow duets where the woman orbits  slowly wrapped around her partner’s torso as if she was underwater. Propelled by music by composer Joby Talbot (including orchestral transpositions of Jack White III’s songs of the White Stripes), every image onstage is riveting and hypnotic. The dancers were spectacular. Vito Mazzeo shaped the space around him beautifully. Sarah Van Patten showed us a flair for contemporary choreography with clear and sharp punctuation in her movements. Sofiane Sylve was stunning, dancing with remarkable sculptural elegance. In a complex duet with Vito Mazzeo, she showed multiple facets of her

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artistry, from pure strength, to outright sex appeal, to moments of disarming delicacy – and always in command. She was breathtaking to watch. Lonnie Weeks was also another standout, dancing with a fierce intensity. He will definitely be one to watch.

Frances Chung and Pascal Molat in McGregor's Chroma. © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova in McGregor's Chroma. © Erik Tomasson

Mark Morris’ world premiere Beaux was next. A dance set for nine men and set to the music of Martinu’s Concerto for Harpsichord and

Small Orchestra, Morris shows us a more intimate portraiture of male virtuosic dancing. The sets and costumes (both by Isaac Mizrahi) colorfully warn the audience that this might not be what we’re used to seeing, with bright pink unitards and a hot pink camouflage backdrop. Gestural motifs are peppered throughout, but nothing is too forced. The choreography flows like a casual conversation. Morris makes us sit up, pay attention, and look closely, to see that in the opening line of men standing in front of the stage, all but one is facing the same direction. There were references (intentional or not, most likely not) of Rodin’s sculptural figures that I used to bike by at the Stanford campus, standing and posturing with other statues around them. There was beauty in the simplicity of the movements with a communal spirit throughout, and the men danced with full hearts.

San Francisco Ballet in Morris' Beaux. © Erik Tomasson

With the program closing with Christopher Wheeldon’s Number Nine© (is that title really copyrighted?), it was like watching the company do what they do best. The brightly colored costumes by Holly Hynes lit up the stage in a blaze of pristine ensemble work by the excellent corps, and it was thrilling to watch some of the company’s best dancers take over the stage in a showcase of virtuosity. Gennadi Nedvigin made the audience gasp with his flying entrance with his delicate and nimble duet with Maria Kochetkova, and Frances Chung and Pascal Molat flew lightning-fast through the choreography with ease and limber musicality. Yuan Yuan Tan was fun, playful and flirty in her pas de deux with Carlos

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Quenedit, and Elana Altman and Anthony Spaulding were statuesque in spite of a brief fumble early on. With music by Michael Torke, it was thrilling to watch the dancers dance with such style and mastery over the music’s complex rhythms, and a proper end to a gorgeous evening of contemporary ballet.

Ruben Martin Cintas and Sarah Van Patten in Wheeldon's Number Nine. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Number Nine. © Erik Tomasson

Program 2 will end on February 25, 2012. Click here for more info. Program 3 is also playing at this time, and will play through February 26, 2012.

Review: 2012 Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo at the Mondavi Center

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo's Swan Lake

Balanchine famously said, ballet is woman. Not always so, as this all-male troupe demonstrated. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is a pointe-shoe wearing all-male ballet troupe that breaks every ballet stereotype in the

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book. Anorexic ballerinas? No one could ever imagine such bulging biceps and healthy thighs peeking out from layers of tulle in their tutus. How about the age-old mantra that the female roles/dancers should always be shorter than their male counterparts in point? Not true – the Trocks demonstrate how arresting a 6+ foot dancer can be, majestic and powerful, and always with a touch of humor. In fact, I learned that it’s impossible to take your eyes off a dancer like that. (On this point, I guess the Trocks and Balanchine share their love for tall dancers and their resulting long lines).

It might be difficult to get past the tufts of hair peeking above sparkling white bodices and a flash of dark armpit hair under a gracefully waving arm. But try as you might, and if you can see past your tears of laughter, you will see that the Trocks aren’t just a comedic act. They have a style that is entirely their own, backed by incredible technique. In their famous Act II of Swan Lake (do the Trocks perform this at every performance?), they perform a slightly altered rendition of the notoriously difficult Dance of the Cygnets. I’m so used to seeing the original Dance with at least a little bit of trepidation on stage, which always makes me uneasy as a result. But not only did the Trocks nail it, they tossed off the choreography with humor and flair, complete with facial expressions in addition to the intricate choreography,

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like it was easy. The effect is hilarious and utterly triumphant.

In fact throughout the entire evening, there was not a whiff of caution onstage. The Trockaderos’ style is bold and exuberant. Their attack is strong and sure. Every step is full out at full speed, whether they go up on point in an arabesque, or whether they are tossing off fouettes with a rare confidence that many ballerinas dream of. Their balances are extraordinary. It’s for these reasons that I particularly enjoy the pieces that they perform without jokes around every corner. Their Go for Barocco choreographed by Peter Anastos is a brilliant spoof of Balanchine’s stark, sexy ballet style, parodying Balanchine’s geometric formations and ensemble work. But even if you had never seen Balanchine before, it’s a delightful musical sketch that holds interest through its lightning fast and repetitious footwork. It’s Balanchine with a wink and a smile.

The evening ended with Majisimas, a Spanish-inflected showcase of classical ballet technique. Danced mostly straight without too many stabs at humor, it was a refreshing showcase of what these men can really do. Through seductive hips, the dancers sailed through this showcase of classical ballet fireworks and technique. I was reminded of the Trockadero’s performance of Paquita that I saw two years earlier at the same venue, and this piece reminded me of the same joy and celebration that I still recall from that performance two years ago. (Their Paquita is a must-see, and something I’d love to see live again someday.) And Paul Ghiselin’s rendition of The Dying Swan is pitch perfect, down to every detail, and a personal favorite.

Hilarious, yes – their Swan Lake is both funny and creative, and kids and adults alike will love this show. But what makes this troupe “the real deal” is their artistry, with their hearts on their sleeve. It doesn’t hurt that names such as Jacques d’Aniels (come on, a ballet and alcohol reference all in one!) and my husband’s favorite, Stanislaus Kokitch is in the program (I had to say that last one out loud before I got it, to my husband’s chagrin). And the dancers! I’m sorry I don’t recognize a lot of the dancers yet, but the fabulous Robert Carter was a standout.

Go see it!!

For a particularly good piece on the Trockaderos, check out this great entry on You Dance Funny. And for an added bonus, you can read in

the comments my personal story of seeing the Trocks for the first time. :)

Click here for more information on the Mondavi Center.

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1: John Cranko’s Onegin

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's Onegin. © Erik Tomasson

Rarely has a ballet treated its title character with such little sympathy. But equally rare is a full-length ballet assembled with intricate detail that ultimately sweeps the audience up on a breathtaking journey and challenges the audience with such rich choreography. John Cranko’s full-length production of Onegin is a gem. Loosely based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Eugene Onegin”, rather than a simplistic love story we’ve come to expect from full-length ballets, this is a refreshing moral tale told in the most interesting way.

Stunning costume and scenic design (by Santo Loquasto) would be empty without solid choreography to sustain such a dramatic journey. John Cranko’s choreography intimately captures the emotions of his characters so well. In addition, his choreography is rife with literature metaphor, an homage to the origin of the story perhaps. In the final pas de deux, Onegin pulls Tatiana’s arms back as she tries to walk forward, symbolizing the burden he had become in keeping her from progressing forward in her life. Add a layer of ingenuity to taking classical ballet steps and adding twists in the partnering, or a sprinkling of modern angles – a lean of the hip here, an innovative lift there. The peasant

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dances were the most interesting that I’d seen onstage, as  usually they are seen

as “fillers” for the more interesting sections. Not so here.

Maria Kochetkova in Cranko's Onegin. © Erik Tomasson

Overall, the choreography captured the emotions of the characters, but also gave the audience lots of things to think about as well. I love choreography that assumes an intelligent viewer. It’s a ballet to capture the heart and brains of its audience.

For the Sunday matinee performance, lead principals Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba lit up the stage in a breathless performance. Van Patten’s heart-wrenching performance led many to tears in the final pas de deux with Pierre Francois Vilanoba, complexly layered with nostalgia, bitter regret, revenge, and heart. They appeared to be dancing a performance of a lifetime, and it was amazing to watch. Isaac Hernandez as Lensky displayed lovely transitions and phrasing, particularly in the curvature of his back and arms, but perhaps didn’t quite have the gravity of presence to master the fiery role. Courtney Elizabeth lit up the house with a lovely natural smile as the fun-loving Olga.

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's Onegin. © Erik Tomasson

In short, this production is one not to be missed. In my twitter account, I tweeted a three word review of this production, which was “pretty frickin’ amazing”. And that about sums it up. All of the parts of this production lined up to become more than the addition of its parts, with spectacular dancing throughout.

Did you see this production? Who did you see in the leads? I would have loved to have seen Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz dance the title roles as well, I’m sure they were amazing too.

Onegin continues until February 3. Click here for more information. Program 2 starts on February 14.

Photos from 2012 San Francisco Ballet Opening Night Gala

The season has officially begun! Who’s excited for the upcoming year?? I am!

Some gorgeous photos from the gala; as always, click on them to enlarge. Enjoy!

Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo in Wheldon's Continuum. © Erik Tomasson

Frances Chung and Taras Domitro in Vainonen's Flames Of Paris. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Alexander Riabko in Neumeier's Lady Of The Camellias. © Erik Tomasson

Dana Genshaft and Ruben Martin Cintas in Wheeldon's Number Nine. © Erik Tomasson

The season opens with Onegin by John Cranko on Jan 27. Click here for more information.

Review: 2011 San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker

Val Caniparoli in Tomasson's Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson

Nutcracker season has begun! And what would the holidays be without it? Seriously, for me this year was one of the first years in a long time where I really thought I wouldn’t be able to make it – chalk it up to the hardest rotation in my third year of medical school so far in addition to planning my own wedding next week! – but during the one free night that I had, I squeezed in an evening with friends mere hours after my final exam. And it was totally worth it!! It was a magical evening, and I believe I was smiling the entire time. The magic of this production never fades, year after year, and I’m still convinced it’s one of the finest productions of the Nutcracker in the world.

I had a different viewpoint this time, watching from above in the second balcony, and the view is amazing even from up there as well.

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In the snow scene, the awe-inspiring falling snow literally piles up in seconds before your eyes, and the additional geometric formations of the dancers’ feet making pretty trails in the snow is an added effect to the formation of bodies onstage. It’s an effect I never noticed from the ground floor before. The only down side is that the grandiose scope of the sets are lost on the audience up there.

And how great is it to experience your friends’ experiencing ballet and the Nutcracker for the first time, and loving it?? They laughed through the hilarious and flamboyant Mouse King (danced with delicious flourish by Daniel Deivison) and admired the impeccably trained children of the San Francisco Ballet school, dancing with that certain joy and that charm that only children have.

Mariellen Olson in Tomasson's Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson

The highlights of the show for me were Dana Genshaft and Vitor Luiz as Snow Queen and King, dancing with a crystal clarity that translated all the way up to the second balcony. There was a soaring delicacy to their dancing which was perfect for the snow scene. WanTing Zhao made a knockout of an Arabian Coffee, my first time seeing her onstage, which left me scrambling for my program to identify the dancer. Her extensions are gorgeous, and there was an uncanny way of following through every movement with her hands and her feet that was so gorgeous. She took all the time in the world, unfolding herself in oozing sensuality and teasing the audience behind hidden hands. The Russian are always popular, and Daniel Baker with Diego Cruz and Geraud Wielick gave their all in a rousing performance. Frances Chung danced with all the joy in the world and a magnanimous warmth in her expansive movements. Vanessa Zahorian and Joan Boada were the reigning king and queen in the Grand Pas de Deux in a sparkling finale. Joan Boada has never looked better, dancing with a fluidity and an ease in his jumps and lovely deep landings. Vanessa Zahorian sailed through the Grand Pas de Deux with an easy flair and a regal elegance – has that girl ever fallen out of a turn? – which was thrilling to watch. Alyssa Peter also gave a lively performance as the lovely Clara. Also, a shoutout to the conductor for the evening, Ming Luke, who kept a good pace throughout the program which made the first and second acts clip by in a whirlwind of whimsy and fantasy. The orchestra also sounded cohesive, and I can’t stress how much I love

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Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in Tomasson's Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson

Basically, go see it!! Performances end on December 27. Click here for more information. Also check out the SF Ballet’s Facebook page; they’ve been having quite a few giveaways and discounts lately.

Did anybody see the PBS showing of the SF Ballet’s Little Mermaid? Just curious about what people thought, I would have seen it if I wasn’t at the Nutcracker.