Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet – “Nutcracker”
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Smuin Ballet – “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!”
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Mathilde Froustey in Helgi Tomasson's 'Nutcracker'.   Photo © Erik Tomasson

Mathilde Froustey in Helgi Tomasson’s ‘Nutcracker’.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

December 14. It’s that time of year again: San Francisco Ballet’s annual “Nutcracker” at the War Memorial Opera House. This season marks an important milestone, as it is ten years since the company premiered Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s updated version of the classic Christmas ballet. It is a glorious production, full of merriment, festivity and optimism.

Even if you see “Nutcracker” every December, there is something new to discover each year whether it be outstanding performances (individuals or groups), narrative revelations or spectacular design elements. This year, it was the sequence of scenes that struck a chord as at each plot point, Tomasson crafts Clara’s journey with clever and creative insight and similarly guides the entire audience’s experience.

We begin in the familiar: Act I’s festive party scene. Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home is quite grand and fancy, yet it still contains all the expected holiday images: Christmas tree, gifts and guests. All are infused with anticipation, excitement and there is even a hearty dose of magic. After some joyous dancing and much general regalement, night falls, the party ends and the mood shifts. As Clara (here, Amanda Jue) falls asleep, we see the start of a transformation. Drosselmeyer (the incomparable Val Caniparoli) orchestrates this ‘in between’ state where reality and fantasy start to collide. Furniture moves by itself, the Christmas tree grows, and a battle erupts between toy soldiers and life-size mice. During this scene, the Nutcracker doll that Clara has been given for Christmas also comes to life. After defeating the King of the Mice, he removes his mask and becomes the Nutcracker Prince (at this performance, new principal, Joseph Walsh), who dances for Clara. When Walsh’s piqué turns morphed into multiple attitude turns, it was something to behold. To complete Act I, the pair is led through a snow-filled forest, Tomasson’s wintry scene filled with internal transitory moments as boureés grow into piqués and pas de chats evolve into grand jetés.

Act II finds Clara and the Prince arriving in a land of fantasy and wonder, greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy (one of my favorite ballerinas, Mathilde Froustey). A host of nations dance for their new guests, with a particularly spectacular Russian variation. The choreography for this short divertissement is always thrilling but this was the first time I’ve ever seen it performed without anyone from the soloist or principal rank. Led by Wei Wang with Francisco Mungamba and Francisco Sebastiao, the unison and technique were flawless. Froustey’s Sugar Plum Fairy was a delight. There is so much to love about her dancing: fluid turns, genuine stage presence, intense musicality and phrasing, super high jumps followed by silent landings and balances that freeze time. Towards the end of the act, yet another moment of change occurs as Clara transforms into an adult (danced by Frances Chung). Chung and Walsh were absolutely sublime in the grand pas de deux; I hope to see more of their pairing in the coming season. Sunday night’s full-cast finale had a couple of rough moments, but the recovery in each circumstance was phenomenally good.

And then, in the final scene, we return to the Stahlbaum home to find Clara asleep on the chaise holding her Nutcracker doll. As she awakes and greets her mother, all are left to wonder, was it really a dream?

December 24. The twentieth edition of Smuin Ballet’s annual holiday production did not disappoint. With equal parts traditional and contemporary dance works, “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” closed 2014 with a hearty dose of festivity and celebration.

Rachel Furst.  Photo © David Allen

Rachel Furst in Smuin Ballet’s ‘The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!’.
Photo © David Allen

Titled “Classical Christmas”, Act I is all about technical ballet and time-honored holiday music. And of the fourteen short scenes, several (both returning favorites and new premieres) were stand out hits. Michael Smuin’s “Domine” was an elegant vehicle for company veteran Susan Roemer and newer Smuin dancer Nicole Haskins; both women floated ethereally throughout the entire duet. Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert experimented with the challenging pas de cinq structure in “Caroling, Caroling/Bright, Bright”. Lightness immediately abounded as the cast entered from stage right, and they aptly handled Seiwert’s significant choreographic requirements. Roemer again proved herself as a star of “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” with her interpretation of Smuin’s “Ave Maria”. From simple walking to flat-footed promenades to contemporary piqué turns, she captivated. Almost all dancers perform solo work, but not every dancer can command the stage during a solo like Roemer did on Christmas Eve.

Always a treat, “The Gloucestershire Wassail” is a delightful marriage of cultural/folkloric/Celtic movement and percussive dance. The unison in this piece has been better in previous years, though this particular cast made up for it with their pure, palpable, authentic joy. Act I’s second premiere, Nicole Haskins’ “Fantasia”, was absolutely lovely. As is common with most fantasia-forms, Haskins opted to mix styles, genres and structures to create a fun and unique hybrid. It was such a success, and had an almost ‘cheeky’ ending as Terez Dean leapt into Jonathan Powell’s arms.

Following intermission, we were onto the sixteen segments that make up Act II’s ‘Cool Christmas’. Company dancers Weston Krukow and Ben Needham-Wood choreographed the new premieres for this second half, “Mean and Green” and “Frosty the Snowman”, respectively. These humorous romps provided a nice addition and variety to an Act that otherwise was a little too similar to the past few year’s productions. Having said that, Sarah Nyfield sparkled in “La Calandria”. The foot percussion mixed with pointe work and her petit allegro, particularly the assemblés, were out of this world. Nyfield also has these strong, lingering balances that Smuin Ballet, or the new Smuin Ballet, is becoming known for.

Every season, Smuin Ballet produces a variety of work in different formats, with one of the favorites being a collection of shorter scenes. This year’s “The Christmas Ballet, Uncorked!” contained a remarkable number – thirty vignettes of varying length. And while the production came in at a very reasonable two hours, it does seem like each Act could afford to have slightly fewer sketches.

Looking ahead: 2015 promises to be a stellar year for dance in the San Francisco/Bay Area. Here are some of the highlights for January…

San Francisco Performances presents “Wendy Whelan/Restless Creature”, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, (Jan 15-16).
www.performances.org/

San Francisco Ballet’s 2015 Season, War Memorial Opera House
Program 1, (Jan 27-Feb 7)
Program 2, “Giselle”, (Jan 29-Feb 10)
www.sfballet.org/